Training a new generation of psychedelic therapists
Interview by Olivier Taymans
The promising prospects of legal psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy suggested by current research with psilocybin and MDMA are encouraging many therapists and guides to pursue the training that will allow them to work with these substances in the near future. The Californian Center for Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco is the first institution to provide academic accreditation to prospective psychedelic therapists and to those currently involved in research trials such as the ones conducted by MAPS with MDMA.
Janis Phelps, founder and director of the Center for Psychedelic Therapies and Research at the CIIS, joined us at ICPR2020 to discuss the ideal competencies and skills of psychotherapists working with psychedelics. In this interview, she told us about her experience starting the first training program for psychedelic therapists.
Together with Torsten Passie, she will facilitate an online workshop about the theory and practice of psychotherapy with psychedelics. Topics ranging from the optimal clinical competencies of therapists to the best practices in preparation and integration will be discussed in an intimate and interactive online format. Visit our site for more information about eligibility and tickets
You founded the first licensed training program for psychedelic therapists. How did this come about ?
The genesis of this program came about in 2014 at a Heffter Research Institute board meeting, where one of the trustees of our college heard the dire need for psychedelic therapists to be trained.
Our university has been training about 250 therapists a year in 6 different programmes for over 30 years. Stan Grof, Ralph Metzner and other psychedelic researchers have been teaching at CIIS for decades. CIIS trustees gave us seed money for a 3-year grant. I was the founder and creator of the programme, and the opportunities for this were very rich.
We wanted to bring in indigenous ways of knowing as well as the approach typically used in the research protocols for both psilocybin and MDMA.
What are the challenges you faced in this process ?
Well, we were creating something in a vacuum. There were no guidelines yet for how to do this, because no-one had done it before. For a year, I consulted with researchers, underground and above-ground therapists, and in related areas such as hospice care centres and emergency rooms, on how to work with people in altered states.
To devise the programme, we drew from anthropology, clinical and transpersonal psychology, psychoanalysis and ceremonial uses. The challenge was to try to integrate all these in the best possible way.
However, we chose to emphasise the research approach for now, because of the need for therapists to be in FDA-approved clinics. This is a compromise we made, but the upside is that now our graduates get hired by these research entities and they’re opening clinics that will be ready to use MDMA and psilocybin in the next couple of years.
Things seem to be progressing quite fast these days. Are you sometimes concerned they may be going too fast?
I’m concerned about the decriminalisation movements in the US. They’re going quicker than I’m comfortable with. The general public is not sufficiently aware of the hazards and the benefits of the use of plant medicines. Even physicians and nurses don’t know enough, and neither do school teachers.
So we’re working on scaling up our programme to include the general public and give them information online for free: interactions with medications, incompatibilities with certain psychological difficulties, how parents can talk to their kids about psychedelics, etc. I’m concerned there might be another backlash like we had in the sixties if these medicines are not used responsibly.
My other concern is that we’re training only 75 people a year, about 300 so far. MAPS has only trained about 250. We need thousands of therapists trained. I’m concerned that when the medicines get rescheduled, there won’t be enough therapists, with resulting insufficient access to the medicines for patients. So we’re looking to scale it up and develop affiliations with other universities.
What have you taken away from this whole adventure so far?
I’ve been delighted to witness the integrity of the therapists and medical doctors wanting to come into this space. They want to see healing happen, they’re concerned about what’s happening on the planet in terms of politics, genocides and global warming.
They know that psychedelics are not the only way for people to heal, of course, but the kind of therapy we can do is augmented tremendously by the use of plant medicines. I see them changing psychiatry and psychology for nothing but the good.
On average, the professionals who apply for the programme have 15 years of licensed practice, so they’re quite experienced in their work. Some were retired medical doctors who reactivated their license in order to do this work. I also witnessed our students building community with each other, creating associations, building salons, and it’s very exciting to see this flourish across the United States, into Canada, South America and the EU. I realised once again how desperate people are for community. And finally, it’s been wonderful to meet the new generation, I’m very happy to pass the hat to younger people.