Maisa Della Valle is a third-year undergraduate student at Wake Forest University, who is majoring in Psychology and double minoring in Biology and Chemistry. For this upcoming summer, Maisa secured a scholarship to pursue psychological research abroad regarding psychedelic drugs as treatment for PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Her Campus: How did you learn about this research opportunity? Can you explain a little more about the grant?
Maisa Della Valle: I became very interested in the Richter Scholarship after learning that the award grants students the opportunity to pursue globally-orientated independent research. I was particularly intrigued by the freedom within the grant, as I was able to create an entire research proposal based on my own interests. I am passionate about this project as it combines my academic interest in psychology with my personal interest in pursuing a career in the psychedelic field.
HC: How did you become interested in this field of psychology? What do you find the most compelling about it?
MDV: I believe that psilocybin, a hallucinogenic compound obtained from mushrooms, is a promising tool for modern medicine and psychology. The science of psychedelic therapy for mental health has captivated me and revolutionized my understanding of neuroscience and conscious awareness. I hope to one day become a psychedelic-assisted therapist, and I have arranged my academics to pursue this path. I joined a research laboratory at Wake Forest Medical School centered on addiction studies, added a psychology minor to my course load, and began to correspond with leading scientists in the field.
My passion to advance psilocybin therapy has only increased over the years as a growing body of evidence suggests that psychedelics have profound therapeutic benefits to treat mental illnesses. While the United States is experiencing a shift towards the acceptance of psilocybin, the movement is burdened by countercultural baggage, which has postponed legitimate research for over four decades. Fortunately, the social and political landscape is radically different from the ‘60s and the days of Timothy Leary. The traditional biomedical models of clinical medicine are slowly being replaced by a biopsychosocial approach, and there is a growing emphasis on the interplay between nature and nurture. Leading medical research institutions, such as UCLA, NYU, Johns Hopkins, and others have been exploring the benefits of psilocybin. While the United States is moving in the right direction, the UK and the Netherlands remain the hub for psychedelic research and retreat centers.
HC: What do you imagine your research to look like day-to-day? Are you working with animal subjects?
MDV: For my Richter project, I proposed to observe, interview, and shadow psychedelic-assisted psychotherapists and facilitators in the Netherlands to learn about the Dutch ideology behind drug policy and mental health advocacy. I have been in contact with researchers that have pioneered the use of psilocybin in mental health treatment. I plan on observing their private practices. I am curious to learn about the treatments utilized, the different institutions, and the history of the practice implemented by the two different centers. This opportunity will allow me to analyze how clinics and retreat centers approach safe and legal psilocybin experiences. I will be examining how physicians fuse wisdom traditions, modern science, and therapeutic modalities to help treat the mental health disorders that are plaguing society. This experience will be instrumental toward my career goals of medical school and eventually, psychiatry. I want to bring evidence-based, novel therapeutics to the treatment of mental health in the United States.
The Netherlands, particularly the city of Amsterdam, is globally renowned for its advanced and progressive drug policies. For example, truffles, the sclerotia of psilocybin mushrooms, are legal there. A new wave of psilocybin retreat centers is growing in the Netherlands as more people are beginning to recognize the benefits of plant-based medicine. Researchers and policymakers in Amsterdam have noted that psilocybin has the potential to accelerate the treatment of mental illnesses exponentially. Rather than focusing on the suppression of symptoms, the therapist-assisted introspective experience provided by psilocybin can grant patients a new perspective. The use of psilocybin in therapeutic settings is not a new approach as ancient cultures, from the indigenous Amazonian tribes to the Greeks, have been using psychedelics in traditional rituals to expand the mind for thousands of years.
This Summer, I plan to spend four weeks in June traveling through the Netherlands. I plan on learning about how the different clinics and retreat centers operate. During this time, I will gather information about these different Eastern healing modalities as I explore the ancient culture of psychedelics in everyday life. I would like to compare the therapeutic methods utilized by different facilitators. I am specifically curious to see how the different institutions approach pre-screening techniques, pre-departure rituals, retreat intentions, and post-retreat integrations. I would like to compare the history of the institutions with a specific focus on the settings and how this affects patient experience, whether it be a Dutch rural hideaway with trees branching over the windows or a minimalistic room indoors. Recent studies have greatly emphasized the importance of “set and setting,” so I would like to learn about how different places utilize different settings, such as the music playing, the smells, space, the lighting, and even the cultural forces that are not visible. In doing so, I will be able to analyze how they combine the traditional healing practices of Ancient cultures with cutting-edge science. One of the centers I plan on visiting takes patients on a seven-day retreat, while the other fits the entire experience into a day, so I would also like to observe the benefits of having a longer versus shorter retreat. By providing patients with a longer retreat, the psilocybin aspect can be combined with other modalities, such as yoga, breathwork, and mediation, and I would like to observe how this facilitates optimal body, spiritual, and mental wellness.
The heart of the project proposal is to gain a deep understanding of a radically different form of medicine that will introduce me to a network of global mentors, help me to grow as an individual, and ultimately benefit my future career path.
HC: Where do you think the future of psychedelic research will go?
MDV: Any remaining misinformation revolving around psilocybin in our society needs to be replaced by scientific evidence. Most objections are rooted in the fact that there is not enough research. Therefore, I think that legalization is the first step, as psilocybin certainly deserves further study. Oregon has recently set the tone by legalizing psilocybin in a therapeutic setting, but there is a lot of work to be done. I look forward to watching a psychedelic renaissance occur as more and more people are learning about the benefits of this tool in a therapeutic setting. If psilocybin can foster a deep transformation in an individual, it has the potential to do the same for our materialist and spiritually-impoverished society.
HC: Where do you hope this research will take you after graduation?
MDV: I am confident that I will experience both personal growth and enrichment in this endeavor. I will create a network of mentors this summer so that I can learn more from leading pioneers in the field. I hope to attend medical school so that I can become a practicing psychiatrist while simultaneously performing psychedelic research. One day, I hope to open my own practice as a psychedelic-assisted therapist. In doing so, I will be able to help those struggling with anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and the other mental illnesses that are plaguing our society at an alarming rate. Being able to help those individuals would be the greatest reward.