Training psychedelic therapists and researchers will require a careful, multidisciplinary approach.

Image Source: Flickr user Henrique Garcia.

In MAPS’ proposal to the FDA for their MDMA-assisted psychotherapy research, director Rick Doblin wrote of their ongoing studies to treat PTSD: “At present, there are no parallels to [this research] because there are no psychoanalytic agents that therapists administer acutely to patients to enhance the psychotherapeutic process.”

It’s true; there’s nothing quite like psychedelic therapy. While a variety of medicines are used to treat illnesses like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and mood disorders, most focus on correcting the neurochemical processes of the brain. Psychedelics not only do this, but they also work in a psychospiritual context to help patients get to the root cause of psychological and emotional problems. In a psychotherapeutic context—meaning with the help of a therapist or psychoanalyst—you can process these breakthrough experiences to achieve lasting changes.

But developing the field of psychedelic therapy is undeniably a tricky process. Most psychedelics are still illegal in many countries, and it’s uncertain if today’s political climate will make trouble for the field of psychedelic therapy or let it take its own course. Tackling the legal, logistical, and ethical challenges of training professionals in the field of psychedelic therapy can be a daunting task, but we need to do it—and in a thoughtful and responsible way—if we want the next generation to be effective researchers and therapists.

A Multidisciplinary Approach to Training

Becoming a good psychedelic researcher or therapist means educating yourself in a broad spectrum of disciplines, including neurology, biology, natural medicine, psychology, and psychotherapy. Even a lab researcher should have some idea of the psychotherapeutic implications of a substance, and a therapist should have a basic understanding of the neurological and physiological functions of different psychedelics in order to best support their clients. If we don’t want to make the same mistakes as allopathic medicine, this means training researchers and therapists with a holistic, multidisciplinary approach.

There are a few flagship programs available these days that follow a holistic model, including the California Institute of Integral Studies’ certificate in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies and Research and MAPS’ MDMA Therapy Training Program for qualified therapist groups, as well as introductory online courses from organizations like the Spiritual Competency Resource Center. Programs like these take a variety of disciplines into consideration:

  • Past and ongoing psychedelic research
  • Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy
  • Addiction recovery
  • Transpersonal psychology and consciousness studies (including those outside of the realm of psychedelics, like meditation, breathwork, and bodywork)
  • Transpersonal psychology
  • Harm reduction and psychedelic integration
  • Comparative mysticism and shamanism

Hopefully, programs like these will continue to expand and inspire others. But at this point, there’s no preordained path to becoming a professional in the psychedelic field, and educating yourself requires a self-starter attitude. It’s important that you not only read all the books you can on the subjects that interest you but that you also immerse yourself in a supportive community where you can discuss your findings, both personal and second-hand.  

The Problem of Self-Experimentation

Most members of the psychedelic community agree that becoming a truly effective researcher or therapist requires a personal understanding of the psychedelic experience. And there’s a precedent for this—in the early years of psychedelic research, programs like the Training Project for Mental Health Professionals in Maryland administered LSD to people with pastoral and counseling jobs so they could better support their work with people who had experience with LSD. As one participant put it, his LSD experience was a “major, positive event that enhanced my abilities as a priest, therapist, and educator.”

But how can we effectively train upcoming psychedelic professionals when the medicines in question are now largely illegal and unavailable to the public? Some psychedelic medicines are offered to researchers or therapists through clinical trials and programs. Qualified therapist groups enrolled in MAPS’ MDMA Therapy Training Program, for instance, are eligible to use MDMA in conjunction with MAPS-sponsored research studies since MAPS considers personal experience one of the core competencies of being a qualified mental health professional.

There are also opportunities outside the US, particularly if you’re interested in ayahuasca or ibogaine. These psychedelics can be found legally at shamanic retreats and clinics in Central America, South America, and Africa, and offer the unique opportunity to work with indigenous healers and shamans who have been using psychedelic medicines for generations.

Building on Past Research

The long moratorium on psychedelic research in the 70’s-90’s means it’s been a long time since certain medicinal characteristics of psychedelics were studied. It’s important that we assess the gains of research done in the early period of psychedelic research (1947-1976) and use it as a foundation for current research.

This will mean redoing some of that research. As a 2008 study about the guidelines for safe psychedelic research points out, research methodology has changed a lot in the last fifty years, and the research community is more sophisticated in how it designs studies to reduce limitations like selection bias, demand effect (when study participants change their behavior based on what they think is expected or hoped for), and the importance of post-treatment care. This study also pointed to the structured set and setting of shamanic and indigenous psychedelic rituals, acknowledging that, while these are not perfect models, they provide important clues to how we can design clinical trials to best support study volunteers.  

It’s also critical that we have human-based studies—research on the effects of psychedelics on lab animals will only go so far to explain the physiological and neurological effects of psychedelics and say nothing of the transpersonal qualities. If we want to truly understand how these medicines can help humanity, we must use intelligently designed double-blind studies to assess not only their biochemical but psychospiritual effects on human beings.

Supporting the Purpose of Psychedelics

Back to Rick Doblin’s letter to the FDA. I pulled this particular passage because it gets to the heart of how psychedelics work—by enhancing the psychotherapeutic work required of any person trying to overcome mental obstacles or simply striving to live up to their individual potential. In psychedelic therapy, you will be working—whether directly or indirectly—with people struggling with addiction, depression, anxiety, and trauma-based mood disorders. In the conventional medical model, these problems have long been treated by their symptoms, ascribing solutions based on chemical reactions in the brain and the body. While this is a worthwhile and necessary part of treating the most prominent illnesses in society, understanding the chemistry is not enough.

Rather, if we want to harness the full healing power of psychedelic therapy, we must use a psychospiritual model, one that encompasses all the mental, emotional, and spiritual qualities of the psychedelic experience. By understanding the broad spectrum disciplines contained within psychedelic therapy, using our own personal experience, and building on the research of the past, we can learn how to best use psychedelics for recovery and healing.