If you were to poll every psychedelic user in the United States and ask them if there was ever a time they were having a challenging trip and needed someone to talk to, or if they ever had an intense psychedelic experience that they had trouble integrating afterwards, my guess is that it would be well over 50%, perhaps even 75% or higher.
There are a lot of ways that people can find help in these situations, including trip sitters, psychedelic-friendly therapists, having a close friend you can call, or in-person offerings at festivals like Zendo tents, but none of these supports are available instantaneously, free, and agnostic to location and social circles.
Enter Fireside Project. Launched on April 14th of 2021, they provide free, confidential, peer-to-peer emotional support by phone and text message. Their Psychedelic Peer Support Line is a service people can call or text for immediate psychedelic support, whether they are in the throes of a difficult trip, supporting a friend having a difficult trip, having a hard time with the ripples of an intense prior journey, or just need someone to talk to. The line is staffed by volunteer psychedelic peer support specialists who are trained in providing a safe space and a helping hand to the psychonaut in need.
I sat down recently over Zoom with co-founders Hanifa Nayo Wahington and Joshua White to discuss the intention behind Fireside Project and how such a novel and important endeavor has fared since going out into the world.
Thanks so much for speaking with us Hanifa and Josh. Fireside Project was a long time in the making, and it finally launched this year. I’m curious, how has the launch been?
Hanifa: It’s been a huge learning experience. It’s been really phenomenal to launch a service that’s so unique and is driven by peer support that’s really helping people. To think on the very first shift of the support line, we were on shift to receive those first calls and texts, it was a really special feeling to feel that we are switching on to help all these people who need support and connection. The people who call us went from having no place to go to having a crew of volunteers ready to support and witness and be with them in this way. It feels really special to be part of something like that and know that we are helping people.
As founders of a startup project like this, we are wearing lots of different hats all the time on the backend. It can be stressful, but it’s a wonderful invitation to seek that balance.
Josh: I would say it has been a profoundly beautiful and extremely challenging experience. The current number of calls is around 800, which is a pretty large number, and when you think about what each of those calls meant, I think the impact is off the charts. We’re also very excited to be collaborating on a study with UC San Francisco and Dr. Rachel Yehuda at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine that explores our risk reduction potential.
Following every conversation we send out post-call surveys to ask about our callers’ experience with us. About 70% of people say we helped them reduce their psychological distress. Around 50% say that they would have been physically or psychologically harmed but for their conversation. Around 30% said they would have gone to the ER or called 911 if they didn’t reach out to Fireside Project. Those are pretty staggering numbers, and they highlight for me the yin yang of our mission- to help people reduce risk and fulfil potential of their psychedelic experiences.
When you create a safe container for people, that reduces their risk. And, having that safe container provides people with the opportunity to turn towards their experience and see it for what it is, which is an unparalleled opportunity to learn about themselves and to fall in love with every part of themselves.
That’s beautiful and leads me to my next question. You mentioned harm reduction, and I know your volunteers go through a lot of training before taking calls, but how much are they taught to just hold space for people, versus helping them to lean into their experience, versus guiding that experience? Where do you fall on that whole spectrum of harm reduction, space holding, trip sitting, and guiding?
Hanifa: An overwhelming 92% of the folks who have responded to our surveys said that they felt cared for and witnessed, and I think that speaks really strongly to what our volunteers are doing and providing on the line.
Our training is really focused on peer support. While some of our volunteers do have other credentials, we are very clear that we do not provide medical support or therapy, we provide emotional peer support. Our training heavily leans on removing the ego, not being a guide, allowing space for the person to go through what their experiencing, to be encouraging, to normalize, to witness, all the while assessing if there is harm or risk, and to know the scope of services that we provide on the support line, or where they need to be transferred to a supervisor or emergency services or other services they may need.
We always encourage our trainees to hang their credentials at the door, and people really do that. We are looking for people who are excellent listeners and can speak really clearly and reflect back, because so much of the time people are really wanting to be heard. When you are reflecting back what you hear, the callers are learning things and able to reflect on what’s going on within them.
Josh: I think you expressed it perfectly, Hanifa. We are not guides. We are peers who are offering the benefit of our own lived experiences as a way of helping callers learn from the experiences they are going through. We have no agenda whatsoever other than to meet people where they are.
I also just want to say that we are not a substitute for calling 911 or for seeking medical care. If someone truly is in immediate danger, our job is to call emergency services, or if we don’t know their location, to encourage them to call emergency services. We’re also not a suicide hotline. If someone is intending to end their life by suicide, or has a plan or the means to do so, we are not a resource for them.
Everything you’ve shared resonates perfectly with my own experience in peer support. It’s critical to understand the distinction between peer support and other things.
I have to ask, the psychedelic space can be… strange… sometimes. With such high call volumes are you running into people with more serious mental issues, or folks that just take too much all the time, or who abuse your service?
Josh: We’ve been very fortunate to have almost no one use the line inappropriately, which is pretty amazing after 800 calls. People seem to really respect what we are trying to do, and reach out to us with an open heart and with so much gratitude.
One of the most common reactions that people have beyond just gratitude when they reach out to us, is incredulousness that something this beautiful could possibly exist. If you actually think about what this is, a service where you can call to process a psychedelic experience and speak to a stranger who is deeply passionate about supporting you on your journey, it’s a mind-boggling idea, and we get so much gratitude and almost shock that such a thing exists.
Hanifa: Early on there were a lot of people calling in and just saying “Is this real? I can really call this number?” And we’re like “Yep, so save this number in your phone in case you need us.”
That’s beautiful, and it echoes my own experience as an integration coach and being coached by others. The power of this disembodied benevolent helper that exists over the phone, who is not tied to your social circles, there’s no in-person complications, the connection is very clean and helpful. Being able to connect with someone who’s sole purpose is to simply be present and reflect with you, is just like you were saying Josh, such a profound thing to experience when you need it.
Josh: In the psychedelic space and in other spaces, I’m a big believer in this idea of abundance, that people should have multiple options and find which option works for them. And I think that’s true in the psychedelic support arena as well. I think there are people for whom a psychiatrist having an experience on the couch is the perfect experience for them. There may be others for whom maybe a guide or shaman in the Amazon is perfect. There are people for whom speaking to their friends is the perfect opportunity. We see ourselves as one of many options that are available to people.
Diversity is resilience!
Hanifa: Absolutely, and with that I would just say also that we hold this work really highly and always moving towards more liberation and more equity. We try to put those words into action. Sometimes people don’t have the resources to afford an integration coach or a therapist, and I think over half of our calls have been people wanting help integrating a previous experience. Everyone should have access to that kind of service. We are not a replacement for clinicians or psychotherapists or other professionals, but we are part of the net to make sure nobody falls through. We need to ensure access, especially as this psychedelic industry grows and continues to bloom and explode right now.
Indeed. I’ve seen in your materials that Fireside is “culturally sensitive.” What does that mean and look like in practice?
Hanifa: In the future there will be an opportunity for integration calls for people who are from marginalized communities, black, indigenous, veterans, trans, etc. If someone wants to have integration calls with others from that community, we want to provide that. There’s a depth of safety and expression and understanding that folks can have with people who have shared identities, so we want to be able to offer that side of integration support, starting with those I mentioned and growing to support other communities as well in the future.
We also understand that doing inner work is super important when we talk about removing our egos, or looking at and investigating where some of our cultural biases lie. We try to create a culture of belonging, and invite our volunteers and our staff to be engaged in this process of inner work as a vital part of our service. Although it’s not a magic wand that makes anyone 100% attuned to all sorts of cultural identities, it’s a step in the right direction, and it’s a core part of how we operate.
We are very grateful to Josh and Hanifa for taking the time to speak with us. Check out Fireside Project on the web and download their app, and if you find yourself needing psychedelic support, call or text 62-FIRESIDE, or 623-473-7433. Currently, they are open Thursday to Sunday, from 3:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. PST and Monday from 3:00p.m. to 7:00 p.m. PST. Starting on October 10, 2021, the line will be open every day from 3:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. PST.