Wednesday January 18, 2023

In this issue, we look at the discussion following the news that Prince Harry used psychedelics to try to cope with his grief over the death of his mother, Princess Diana. Plus: How imams combat stigma over mental health. An attorney urges the U.S. to ban conversion therapy. And how racial discrimination can wreak havoc on your body’s brain-gut microbiome, something that may lead to a higher risk of autoimmune inflammatory diseases.

Prince Harry used psychedelics to cope with his grief. So what’s the state of the science?

Prince Harry in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2018 (Shutterstock)

Just as psilocybin-assisted therapy became legal in Oregon this month, Prince Harry’s memoir Spare arrived in bookstores. In the book, Prince Harry describes his use of hallucinogenic mushrooms and ayahuasca to help manage his overwhelming grief over the loss of his mother. The New York Times reports used the publication of the memoir as a point of departure to examine scientists’ views on the use of psychedelics for treating grief.

Joshua Woolley, director of Translational Psychedelic Research at UC-San Francisco, told the Times that psychedelics are “probably” helpful, but others say more research is needed. “The actual evidence is really lacking,” said Shaili Jain, a PTSD specialist at Stanford University. “It’s very early, and we still don’t know the long-term side effects.”

Grief is a universal human experience.  Shock and horror, numbness, profound sadness, denial, anger, guilt, helplessness, depression, and longing are all part of normal grieving. That’s different from prolonged grief, a recognized mood disorder that affects about 10% of bereaved people, causing sustained emotional pain and desolation that leads them to isolate and affects their ability to function, pursue their own interests or plan for the future.

The Times spotlights two studies, both published in 2020, that suggest psychedelics have some potential in treating prolonged grief. One, led by Woolley, provided a single dose of psilocybin plus group therapy to 18 gay men, all long-term AIDS survivors who experienced prolonged grief and trauma and had lost an average of 17 friends to the epidemic. For them, the therapy was powerful: 90 percent became less demoralized and many found an easing of their PTSD symptoms. Another found that 39 bereaved adults who took part in ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru experienced a significant lessening of the severity of their grief. Still, both studies were small and both lacked a control group to compare the effects of the psychedelics against a placebo or other treatment – shortcomings that support Jain’s point on the need for more data.

The ways that psychedelics seem to act in the brain to ease depression – which has been more widely studied – hints at a possible role for them with prolonged grief, said Mary-Frances O’Connor, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. Still, she told the Times, it shouldn’t be a first resort to typical, uncomplicated grief. “I would worry that you could do more harm than good and that it just may not be necessary,” she said.


Imams break down stigma, bring mental health resources to Muslims

via Twitter

The pandemic sparked a new way of looking at mental health care for many communities that previously diminished its importance, including US Muslims. “COVID-19 opened the closed doors for Muslim Americans to speak out about their own mental health,” said Iman Farajallah, a California-based psychologist and researcher whose clients are largely Muslim. One big challenge, she told Yes magazine, is finding providers who are culturally competent and can speak Arabic. Another is the high cost of mental health treatment. In the Muslim community, imams sit in a unique position to combat stigma and connect community members to help. 

“We are often the first responders to mental health crises, because there is a trust factor that was built over time, and because of the huge stigma within our community,” said Imam Mufti Farhan, leader of the oldest mosque on Long Island. Sarah Murad, an Illinois-based counselor with the Islamic Circle of North America added, “By the time people come to seek our help, it is already too late because of the stigma, so the first thing they ask for is a religious counselor.” When that happens, she points people to a local shaykh who offers therapy and delivers sermons about mental health. 

Obstacles notwithstanding, Muslim mental health providers are optimistic about the cultural shift and grateful for the growing collaborations. “We have more collaboration and conversations between mental health professionals and religious leaders than 10 or 15 years ago,” said Salman Shaheen Ahmad, cofounder of the Muslim American Project at Miami University. “We have more community centers and more open spaces. We have more people who are doing scientific research and culturally-informed therapy, and who care about combining … the two.”


Op-ed takes on conversion therapy, urges federal action banning practice

In a Chicago Tribune op-ed that gets right to the point, lawyer and author Jeffery Leving says it’s time to ban the “pseudoscientific practice” of so-called conversion therapy aimed at LGBTQIA+ youth. Recent studies debunked claims of its effectiveness, and the American Psychological Association opposes the practice for its harm to mental health. Last summer, President Biden signed an executive order that instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to create standards that block organizations practicing conversion therapy from receiving federal monies.

“While Biden’s executive order was a positive step, it didn’t go far enough,” Leaving wrote. “Sadly, the US is behind other nations in banning this debunked practice…it affects many families on both sides of the political aisle and [is] one that the new Congress should take up this year. There is no reason why this harmful practice should still be legal in half our states.”


Racial discrimination is harmful to the psyche – and to overall health

via Twitter

Discrimination doesn’t just undermine folks’ mental health. it may contribute to the development of chronic disease linked to inflammation and other changes in body chemistry, according to a new study from researchers at UCLA, CNBC reports. “How we treat people and how we are interacted with has huge impacts on how it affects your biology,” said study co-author Aparna Gupta. “Those interpersonal relationships can have huge impacts all the way down to your microbiome” – in this case, the brain-gut microbiome. 

Over the past decade or so, scientists have increasingly linked the impact of the gut microbiome – the microorganisms camped in our intestines – to those microbes’ ongoing two-way communication with our brain. This takes place through at least three interactive channels that involve signaling mechanisms from the endocrine system, the immune system and the central nervous system.

This study, published in Biological Psychiatry, analyzed brain MRIs, blood samples, fecal matter, and survey responses of 154 white, Black, Hispanic, and Asian adults. All said they had experienced discrimination – but for different reasons. Whites reported age and gender discrimination, while Blacks, Hispanics and Asians cited discrimination based on race, skin color, or ethnicity. 

People of all races reported mental health issues linked to the discrimination they experienced. But the study found that people of color also showed body chemistry changes consistent with inflammation and inflammatory disease. Asians showed an increase in metabolites associated with cholesterol, while Black and Hispanic respondents showed increased levels of a gut bacteria associated with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune inflammatory diseases. Whites, though they reported anxiety associated with discrimination, showed no increase in inflammation.

Researchers think that the chronic stress associated with racism and discrimination plays out in dysregulation of the gut-brain axis, setting the stage for inflammatory disease. “Discrimination based on race or ethnicity had a lot to do with more inflammation in the body, which led to changes in the microbiome which led to inflammatory response,” Tien S. Dong, an assistant professor at UCLA who co-authored the study, told CNBC. “This kind of chronic inflammatory response can lead to negative health outcomes.”


In other news…

What’s the impact of 988 so far? In this 3-minute listen, NPR’s All Things Considered makes a few big points: Nearly half a million more Americans reached out for help in the first five months of operation than had dialed the old 10-digit line, and wait times to be connected to a counselor once the line answers have dropped, resulting in fewer abandoned calls. But the experience of callers still varies considerably state-to-state. For instance, Maryland posted a 988 response rate of 89% in November 2022 whereas Texas reported 63%.

Brew your own happiness with 6 scientifically-supported practices: Head to Discover Magazine to find out why they work. 1) Nurture your relationships. 2) Perform random acts of kindness. 3) Surround yourself with happy people. 4) Practice gratitude. 5) Smile more. 6) Look for daily experiences of awe.


If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.


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Courtney Wise

Courtney Wise Randolph is a writer and creative based in Detroit, Michigan.