psychedelic inclusion

Photo by Matt Garza

Jennifer Purdon of Storrs, Connecticut is charting an innovative course for the future of the psychedelic movement. Currently an undergraduate studying Psychology and Health and Wellness Through Music at the University of Connecticut (UConn), Purdon has been developing best practices for psychedelic inclusion, making techniques like MDMA-and psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy more accessible to ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities.

“Growing up, I was always fascinated by altered states of consciousness,” Purdon said. “I grew up in a very conservative household where I was told to never do drugs.” Instead, Purdon researched and read more about drugs, first trying cannabis in high school. “I realized it wasn’t everything my family and the church told me it was. It awakened the inner scientist in me.”

Purdon learned about the MAPS research in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, and experimented on herself and her then-partner using a therapy method inspired by the MAPS’ protocol.

“I saw it had incredible therapeutic potential from my first experience,” she said. “Even though we later separated, we came to an understanding that we could be open and talk about things we had shoved inside ourselves and didn’t have the words or bravery for.”

Psychedelics offered a sign of hope to Purdon, who grew up in a family and community burdened by severe depression, anxiety, substance use, and other illnesses. “Going into college I just wanted to play music and sing to escape my chaos,” she said, “but I also felt a sense of urgency and responsibility to learn from what I’d experienced and help other people going through the same problems.”

She found no outlet to pursue her interests until she came to college and joined Students For Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), a campus-based drug policy activist network. More recently, Purdon has worked with the team of UConn researchers conducting a MAPS-sponsored MDMA for PTSD trial.

This UConn MDMA trial—which was closed down by the university before it reached the randomized trial stage—was specifically focused on working with a therapist team and participant population of people of color. “I have focused on increasing diversity and inclusion of marginalized communities and people of color in this work,” Purdon said. “They have experienced the most at the hands of the Drug War, and have been perpetually targeted by police and politicians.”

Purdon’s team revised many aspects of MAPS’s research protocol, including the informed consent documents given to participants, music selections, clinic room decorations, and researcher training, which previously had designed for an almost exclusively white population.

Purdon and her team’s principal investigator, Dr. Monnica T. Williams, also co-authored a study that reviewed psychedelic research literature dating back to 1994. This confirmed that over decades of research trials, investigators and participants have been overwhelmingly white and male.

“[This situation limits] the generalizability of findings and [excludes] people of color from potential therapeutic benefits,” the report states. “Beyond a broad lack of representation of people of color in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy studies, the conceptualization of psychopathologies rarely include important cultural considerations such as the importance of including race-based trauma when recruiting participants of color for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD.”

In response, Purdon and Williams co-authored a (yet un-released) ‘prescription for change and equity’ in psychedelics, which details how organizations and stakeholders can create a more inclusive and welcoming culture.

“Diversity and inclusion are important but without intentional implementation they’re just buzzwords,” Purdon said. Her ‘psychedelic blueprint’ goes beyond the realm of clinical research to describe how advocates can approach concepts like sexual violence, consent, and capitalism, and create learning spaces and forums for other people. Purdon recently helped develop the Consent is Psychedelic event in New York City, which featured different guest speakers and workshops on sexual consent and drug use.

Photo by Matt Garza

Purdon is also a classical and jazz singer and flow artist, a skillset she wants to embody in psychedelic work. “Music is a powerful healing entity within itself,” she said. “No one doubts music has the capacity to help people come into their bodies and find a voice. Psychedelics enhance your emotional state and make it easier for you to integrate a musical experience.” Current MDMA therapy protocols use background music as a tool for comforting patients.

Purdon hopes to incorporate more elements of music, dance, and body work into existing psychedelic therapy techniques. “Not everyone benefits from talk therapy,” she said. “When you have these very long psychedelic experiences, not everyone wants to spend that whole time ‘tuning in’ and being quiet or speaking. If singing helps you come into your body and cope with your depression, that is something tangible you can work on. This is an art medium you can take with you to move through the world easier and process trauma.”

“There are ways we can expand and modify these therapies to make them suit different peoples’ needs,” she continued. “Psychedelics are very personal and everyone has different ways of working with them. I want to help people to figure out, what do you want to do? What are you trying to accomplish, what are your goals? And how can you use art or music or dance to help you allow yourself the freedom and expression and creativity to get there?”

As of this writing, Purdon is completing her undergraduate studies at UConn before moving to Massachusetts to pursue nursing. “When I thought about the people around me who impacted my life most as medical providers, I thought immediately of nurses and the work they had done,” Purdon said.

Purdon highlighted the example of Ann T. Mithoefer, a nursing professional who led a therapist team with her husband Michael for a groundbreaking MAPS-sponsored MDMA for PTSD study in South Carolina.

As a Nurse Practitioner, Purdon would be able to run her own practice in many states, and prescribe and dispense drugs. “There’s more I can learn about anatomy and the physical body than if I chose a Master’s or PhD program,” she said. “I can explore pharmacology and the interactions between substances. In a world where psychedelics are available legally, I can give these substances to patients without needing a doctor.”

Nurses also save patients money—which is crucial to making more accessible psychedelic therapy that normally costs tens of thousands of dollars. Nurse Practitioners deliver equivalent or even better healthcare than primary care physicians, but charge much less, and spend more time with patients, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Nursing school itself is much more affordable than medical school.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the United States will experience a dramatic shortage of registered nurses (RN’s) by 2030, as the large Baby Boomer generation ages and health care demands increase. Researchers in the Journal of Nursing Regulation predict that one million nurses will retire by 2030, and “the departure of such a large cohort of experienced RNs means that patient care settings and other organizations that depend on RNs will face a significant loss of nursing knowledge and expertise that will be felt for years to come.”

As Jennifer Purdon completes the first phase of her lifelong psychedelic trip, she hopes to inspire people to take the message of these substances home to their communities and families. “Medicalization is one piece of the puzzle,” she said. “Alongside that we need to have widespread decriminalization and legalization, and people need to grow their own plants and fungi like cannabis and mushrooms. We need to foster a community that encourages the safety and wellbeing of its members.”