«Ayahuasca facilitates psychological processes that are difficult to achieve with classical psychotherapy»
After decades of research into psychedelics, Dr. Débora González became interested in researching ayahuasca applied to grief after the tragic suicide of a close friend. After a long process of “anger and denial”, this clinical psychologist managed to unblock the mourning process thanks to ayahuasca, whose name in Quechua means ‘the vine of the dead’. Currently, as part of the Beckley Med Foundation’s research programme, Debora is carrying out an ambitious and pioneering programme to study the effect of ayahuasca on prolonged grief in a group of 200 people over three years. The study has just entered its second phase.

About the study

What is your task at Bmed and what exactly is the research project you are involved in?

I am in charge of the research area at BMed. The project we are currently working on is about the potential of psychotherapy-assisted ayahuasca for the prevention of prolonged flying. We want to test whether ayahuasca in a therapeutic context can help people to continue the grieving process without it becoming chronic.

Why is this study important at this time?

We are going through a very serious pandemic, where many people have died in very abrupt and unprepared ways, very alone in the hospital. People have not been able to say goodbye to their loved ones; some have not even been able to bury their dead or embrace their loved ones at the few funerals that have been held, and all this leads to an alienation from what is a natural process of life and death. These circumstances are very likely to lead to grief becoming chronic, to a wound remaining unhealed and opening up at times when we least expect it.

I think this study comes at a good time because we give people the opportunity to be able to do these rituals that they could not do at the time.

The study gives us the opportunity to be able to perform rituals with a medicinal plant, which allows us to broaden our vision of life and death.

Why ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca’ in Quechua means ‘vine of the dead’ or ‘vine of the souls’, and this is because it somehow connects the human being with a spiritual world, a more transcendent world. Regardless of one’s religious or philosophical beliefs, death is always the Beyond. Even if in the West we understand it as the ultimate end of existence and nothingness, even if we understand it as blind and empty nothingness, that other side exists and then ayahuasca, as its name suggests, has the potential to connect you with that other side. What we have seen throughout the research we have been doing is that the therapeutic potential of this plant in the grieving process is very broad and very varied, but there is a common background, which is to help you take another step and continue moving forward in the grieving process, because grief is not a problem that has to be solved or a state from which you have to get out. It is a natural process in the life of a human being and it is a process that we have to walk through. There is something that underlies almost all processes and that is this broadening of vision and understanding about life and death, and relationships about ourselves and those who have gone.

How are the first participants in the study reacting to the study?

What we have found is that most of the 16 people who have participated so far say “thank you for setting this up, because I think this is the best context we could find to be able to honour our loved ones and to be able to heal our hearts”. This usually comes from people who have done ayahuasca before. More than half of the participants have never taken ayahuasca before and are fully open, because they see the lack of tools and resources we have in the West.

We have 66 year olds who have never taken psychedelics and who are very interested because they have read about the potential of ayahuasca to broaden our worldview of life and death. Why do you want to participate in the study? “Because I need answers. I need to know why this happened to me, why I lost my two children in one year… there is something I have to learn. For these people I think it’s a tool like we couldn’t offer from any other side of psychotherapy, because the answers that people have come naturally. Answers that lead you to other questions that help us to understand a little bit more and more and to become more and more human, because the more you know, the more compassion and empathy you have for others; you feel that we are ephemeral like a drop of dew.

What exactly is the context in which you are going to give ayahuasca to the participants in the study?

It is difficult to carry out such a study within the public health system, as the health system is conceived today. When Gaudí created the Hospital Sant Pau in Barcelona, he did it on the outskirts of the city, in a quieter place, closer to nature, with small houses and pretty paths to connect each of the centres, because he understood that in order to heal oneself the context and the environment were very important, and for that you had to get away from the bustle of society and be more in touch with nature. I think Gaudí was basically right with this vision. The kind of hospitals and health centres we have now, where they are all long corridors, full of doors with fluorescent lights, do nothing to help you heal. People are afraid to go to hospital because it’s quite a hostile place.

So, the study is not done in a clinical setting….

We have the opportunity today to work in collaboration with Santo Daime, a church that uses ayahuasca as a sacrament. They provide us with the substance and, with their collaboration with them, we are going to look for a place that is in nature, that is sheltered, that is warm and welcoming to do this kind of ceremony. Why do we do a ceremony and not a psychedelic psychotherapy session? Because we believe that grief is qualitatively different when it is experienced in solitude than when it is experienced in company, and we believe that the communal aspect of being able to do it as a family strengthens the bonds and gives a sense of shared reality that is greater than when you experience things on an individual level. What this study wants, in a meta-step, is not only to heal people on an individual and clinical level, but also to create culture and that we, the Westerners, who have lost our rites of passage and rites of passage as in the case of the dead. With ayahuasca, families can sit around a fire, and they can take this sacred and medicinal plant and bring the presence of those who are gone.

In fact, ayahuasca is originally used to strengthen the bonds and cohesion of the community, is that right?

Exactly. This has been a cross-cultural legacy that we have inherited and has an extra layer of therapeutic effect. It has always been taken this way in indigenous tribes, and this is how it has come to the West, although we believe it has a much greater potential. Apart from that, on the more material side, it brings down the costs a lot because it is not the same to do therapy for one person as it is to do it for a group of people. Moreover, it has an extra level of therapeutic potential, which is the social, family and community part that is not usually touched upon in individual psychotherapy.

What requirements does a person have to meet in order to be eligible to participate in this study?

They have to have lost a loved one in the last 12 months – they don’t have to have been from Covid, of course – and they have to be a first-degree relative (parents, children, siblings and partner). On the other hand, it is true that ayahuasca is not for everyone. We do not want to put at risk people who might be vulnerable; therefore, there are two very clear exclusion criteria: if the person has high blood pressure or has suffered from some kind of mental illness. For these people it is no longer advisable to take ayahuasca. On the other hand, people who enter the study should not be doing any other psychotherapeutic intervention during the study.

This study is being carried out in Catalonia, when and where do the ceremonies take place?

We are completing the two control groups of the study. There is a group that is going to do nine sessions of psychotherapy – which are done online – it is one hour a week for nine weeks. There is a team of four psychologists, some of them are bilingual English-Spanish. These people will take, if they want, ayahuasca over a weekend in a little house in the outskirts of Barcelona, in the nature, and they condense from Friday morning to Sunday after eating those two ceremonies. These people also have two integration sessions during the following two weeks, also online, with the psychologist of reference.

Therefore, each participant will participate in a weekend with ayahuasca.

For these two initial groups there will be two ceremonies condensed into one weekend, which are of course optional. Nothing is compulsory for these groups. When we start with the experimental group it will be differently but now for now it is like this.


Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Men and women between 18 and 65 years of age
Who have lost a first-degree relative
A maximum of 12 months have passed since the death of their relative.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women
Cardiovascular disorders
Psychotic disorder or history of psychotic disorder
Bipolar disorder or history of such disorder
Psychotropic substance and alcohol abuse
Receiving regular pharmacological or psychological therapy for the treatment of prolonged bereavement during the study.

Débora González
Débora González holds a degree in Psychology (UAM) and a PhD in Pharmacology (UAB, Extraordinary Prize). She has published several articles on the pharmacology of 2C-B, Salvia divinorum and ayahuasca. She is currently researching the potential of ayahuasca as a therapeutic tool in the process of mourning the death of a loved one.
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