A Scientist Explains How Psychedelics Can Help With Certain Mental Health Issues

Researcher Sam Gandy discusses how psychedelics have the potential to improve mental health.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 14, 2022

A new study published in Health Psychology examines how the therapeutic administration of psychedelic drugs in nature-based settings can increase one's connection with nature as well as improve mental health.

I recently spoke to researcher Sam Gandy from the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College in London to better understand these findings. Here is a summary of our conversation

What inspired you to investigate the topic of psychedelics, nature contact, and mental health? What was your research process like?

I met Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, who at the time headed the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College. He knew of my background in ecology and interest in nature, and kindly invited me to collaborate in the work being done on psychedelics and nature relatedness by the group there.

The first study I was involved in with Imperial collected data via a prospective online survey, collecting data before and after people's psychedelic experiences while including a long-term follow-up. An advantage of this kind of survey approach is it allows you to net a large volume of data and it is much cheaper to do.

Controlled studies are obviously more rigorous and provide greater resolution, but they are much more expensive to conduct at this time. Work I have collaborated on since then has obtained data in a variety of form and contexts, including research in an indigenous shamanic context, a controlled clinical context, and qualitative interviews of people using psychedelics naturalistically, "in the wild."

What would you consider some of the main obstacles people face when it comes to 'nature relatedness'?

There are a number of potential barriers to nature connectedness, and broadly speaking it appears to be being increasingly eroded.

Biophobia, a fear of nature or feelings of vulnerability while in natural settings appear to be important. There are also huge inequalities in access to natural settings and opportunities to connect with nature, particularly in the UK. Biodiversity loss is also an issue, with the UK considered one of the most nature-depleted parts of the world.

A diminished potential for everyday interactions with nature (with increasing numbers of people inhabiting nature-deprived environments) has been described as an 'extinction of experience', this being considered a key factor that is undermining people's connection to nature.

Childhood encounters with nature play an important role in establishing one's connection to nature in later life, so a lack of childhood contact with it is likely to have a long-term detrimental impact. Overuse of electronic entertainment technology, particularly among the young, also appears to be fanning the flames of nature disconnect.

Your study mentions hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Would you please give a brief description of these two phenomena. Is one inherently better/more important than the other?

Hedonic well-being is based on the notion that greater pleasure and reduced pain will lead to happiness. Eudaimonic well-being is in some sense a more complex and 'higher level' form of well-being, encompassing vitality, a sense of life meaning, and self-realization, so it transcends the sole pursuit of pleasure or happiness alone. Hedonic well-being is a simpler assessment of well-being, and likely to be more transient and superficial. The pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain may not actually comprise the healthiest approach to living a happy life either. The cultivation and pursuit of eudaimonic well-being is likely to bear greater life fruits overall than a more single-minded focus on happiness alone.

What advice for people that might want to try some sort of clinical psilocybin but are feeling nervous or reluctant?

I'm a researcher, not a clinician, but I would say that classical psychedelics such as psilocybin are considered among the physiologically safest and most non-toxic substances known, and some of them have been used by humans for a variety of purposes (including healing) for centuries, if not millennia in some cases. I would also say that feeling nervous before a high-dose psychedelic experience is a totally normal and healthy response. People undergoing therapeutic psychedelic experiences are encouraged to "trust, surrender, let go"; their nervous system knows what to do.

For an individual that may not be aware, what is a feeling of awe? Both in relation to psychedelic experiences and in a general sense?

The experience of awe encompasses encountering vastness that transcends one's current frame of reference. It is tied to the feeling of experiencing something much greater than the self, with the identification of a 'small self' in this context. It is a complex emotional state that is linked to feelings of interconnectedness. A range of psychological benefits are associated with the experience of awe, and it is associated with both contact with nature and with the action of psychedelics.

If you could tell someone that is against the practice of therapeutic psychedelic administration one piece of knowledge, what would you want them to know?

Aside from their safety when used with care, psychedelic therapy is showing early promise in the treatment of otherwise intractable conditions such as major depression, existential anxiety, addiction, and PTSD. Broadly speaking, existing mainstream treatments tend to fall short when it comes to these conditions. Psychedelics offer the potential of new mental health treatments for these and other conditions yet to be clinically researched, and the possibility of reinvigorating the field of psychiatry, which some in the field feel it is in need of. More work is required though before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

What procedures would need to be in place to ensure the most conducive and effective administration of psychedelics in nature environments?

Natural settings are inherently unpredictable and more uncontrolled than the much more tightly controlled and secure clinical setting. Things such as the possibility of inclement weather and encounters with wildlife or other people need to be thought about and planned for in advance.

With this in mind, a shelter or structure in place would be essential, so people have the option of comfortable shelter or seclusion should they desire. For an experience in nature, the large doses of psychedelics used in clinical studies may be excessive, and prior experience of psychedelics may be advisable before considering a nature-based setting.

In a clinical context, it isn't feasible to take people out into nature at this time. But that does not mean that elements of nature can't be brought into the clinical space.

Psychedelics need not be administered in natural settings for these to play a beneficial role either. Such settings could be incorporated into the preparation or follow-up integration stages, prior to and following a psychedelic experience.

Research outside of the psychedelic sphere has suggested that an increased acknowledgment of and engagement with nature can enhance connectedness in a broad sense. Work by my friend and collaborator Dr. Ros Watts has highlighted the importance of a shift in connectedness across a broad domain underlying some of the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. To maximize the potential of psychedelics as catalysts of connection, they could potentially be used in a group context in natural settings, with the possibility of supplementing enhancements in connectedness.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on psychedelic administration and mental health go in the future?

There is some follow-up research work in the pipeline. I was involved with one study looking at nature-relatedness in an indigenous shamanic ayahuasca retreat context in the Peruvian Amazon which has been rewarding.

I am also collaborating on another interesting qualitative study on psychedelics and nature connectedness. This has been refreshing and illuminating as it sheds light on the mechanisms underlying how and why people feel more connected to nature following psychedelic use.

Together with Imperial College collaborators, we have a study looking at how psilocybin in a clinical context affects nature connectedness. This I hope will help advance the research on this subject, as it will be controlled, have a good sample size, and involve both clinical and healthy psychedelic naïve groups.