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Mapping the Mind conference: Community and psychedelics

If a single overarching lesson could be taken from this past weekend’s Mapping the Mind conference it would be this: the consumption of psychedelics has historically been a community experience and current scientific research is now providing the data to support why the practice should remain so.

Sunday’s Mapping the Mind conference sessions focused on the topics of psychedelic apprenticeship, psychedelic group therapy and psychedelic peer support, providing a framework for what therapeutic psychedelic practices currently look like while at the same time suggesting routes for evidence-backed roadmaps on what therapy could and should look like in the future as we move towards decriminalization, legalization and the increased access that will allow.

Navigating the double-edged sword of psychedelic suggestibility

Sunday’s first Mapping the Mind conference speaker was Dr. Chris Timmermann, co-author of the paper Towards psychedelic apprenticeship: Developing a gentle touch for the mediation and validation of psychedelic-induced insights and revelations.

A psychedelic therapy session

Like so many working in the field of psychedelic therapy, Dr. Timmermann’s work highlighted the beneficial therapeutic outcomes of the experience in terms of an increased capacity to understand the world and our place in it as well as an increased facility in comprehending and adopting a dualist or anti-materialist view of existence. Both of these factors can lead to improved mental health outcomes he says, but the idea that psychedelics can open us up to an increased mental suggestibility is also what Timmermann calls a “double-edged sword.”

The two issues at the centre of this are transference and consent and the key to being successful on both planes, says Timmermann, is an informed, aware and practiced therapist or facilitator.

Psychedelic apprenticeship is the framework he proposes to navigate the pitfalls. At the centre of that, he explains, “the key element is the relationship with the other — these are relational medicines, they’re relational tools, they’re relational drugs.”

Ideally, he explains, the psychedelic experience should be a shared one in which the facilitator has a deep personal knowledge of the medicine (Timmermann compares a guide who’s never tried psychedelics to a guitar teacher who’s never picked up a guitar), in which context is key (he calls it “the future of the field”), and in which the history of psychedelic use is acknowledged and honoured by including traditional communities in the scientific study process.

The psychedelic research he advocates for is one that is multidisciplinary — it encompasses thinkers from not only neurology and pharmacology but from philosophical and anthropological spheres as well. (In his own work, he relies heavily on the philosophical discipline of micro-phenomenology, an interview technique developed for the scientific study of experience.) Like the psychedelic experience itself, Timmermann believes that research into the field should be open and shared — a policy that can only lead to faster and broader access to these important medicines.

Group work as the root of beneficial psychedelic experiences

It’s only fitting that Mapping the Mind’s session on psychedelic-assisted group therapy was itself a group discussion with speakers Dr. Anne Wagner, Dr. Pamela Kryskow, and Dr. Josh Wooley. All three are engaged in providing and researching psychedelic therapy in a group setting, believing that this methodology presents huge potential for mental health and wellness.

For Wagner, a psychologist and one of the investigators in a study on Cognitive-Behavioral Conjoint Therapy for PTSD + MDMA, a group setting simply makes sense. “When we’re doing any type of healing work in a vacuum with one person and a therapist,” she explains, “it really takes it out of the context that we’re living in or that we will be interacting with in the future. If you’re doing therapy in a group context, that’s a far more realistic version of how you’re going to have to be in the world after that interaction. That can be incredibly empowering and nourishing for folks to be in there and also have to navigate the challenges that come up in a group,” she said, adding, “People are not always going to be seeing eye to eye, you’re going to have conflict. There’s going to be all the real-world components. I think that can be both really beneficial to be able to work with that and also it can create challenges — but ones that are real and are going to come up beyond [the session].”

Group therapy session

Addressing the risk of trauma transference mentioned in the earlier session, Dr. Kryskow said that it can be mediated with set and setting.

“When we prepare our groups we talk about their mat being their island. We start with headphones, everyone is listening to the same music plus the speakers in the rooms. We really just set it up for people to have an internal journey,” she says. “Our elder talked a lot about the history of going inwards and using the eye shades, so even though we were doing that, she gave an historical context to that spiritual journey and having the eyes covered. People really go inward and have their own journey but they also have a connection to the room.” Kryskow says her patients talk about being able to “feel” each other laughing or crying during a session and reacting to support one another.

Going beyond clinical group therapy, Wooley points out that in these early days of the psychedelic renaissance, valuable data is coming from some less expected sources, like Reddit. Building on a statement from the session’s moderator about the pharmaceutical industry’s biomedical models and their incompatibility with psychotherapy, Wooley said “This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Psychotherapy is very hard to study, like, what is the control condition for a ‘good’ therapist? How do you keep the therapist and patient ‘blind’ when they’re in therapy? Then you add psychedelics where part of its mechanism is the psychological journey that people go on. And what is the control for that?” Instead, today’s researchers have to build their own framework for study.

The emergence of psychedelic peer support at the Mapping the Mind conference

In October of 2020, Mapping the Mind conference speakers Hanifa Nayo Washington and Joshua White launched the psychedelic peer support organization, Fireside Project.

Six months later, their support line began taking calls in an effort to serve psychedelic users during or after an experience or those sitting with someone in the midst of a psychedelic experience. Fireside Project is yet another way that advocates are allowing for psychedelic consumption to remain a communal activity with volunteers on hand to both assist those who might be going through a challenging trip as well as those looking to process past experiences.

Calling a psychedelic helpline

The concept for the network, says Washington, is built on “liberation and equity” and “centered in providing education and training around all things psychedelic peer support.” The organization is also involved in rigorous research to support the work they do.

The goal, adds White, is to address some of the looming problems in the psychedelics space: the predominance of white voices, the U.S. government’s ‘War on Drugs’ and the way it targets people of color, and the way the access to both medicine and information about that medicine is limited to people of privilege. Democratization of psychedelics is key if it’s to be used in the mental health sphere or if the institution of a rational, evidence-based drug policy is to become a reality.

In the meantime, says Washington, “It’s really about offering peer support that’s based in unconditional awareness and presence, taking our ego out of the way. We are there to witness and to reflect and go wherever the journeyer wants to go, and to let them know that they are safe and not alone.”

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