We often find a safe place in therapy, and pour our hearts out while our therapists try their best to carefully navigate our emotions. This isn’t an easy job, and to be successful at it requires a great level of patience and empathy, demanding continued learning and personal discovery for both the therapist and the patient.
The combination of psychedelic drugs and therapy requires practitioners to understand more than just clinical efficacy to ensure safety and well-being. Psychedelics are a distinct and deeply personal journey that demands a therapist walk in the patient’s shoes to truly relate to their experience.
“I was already a very skilled therapist,” says Dave Phillips, a licensed counsellor and Training Advisor at TheraPsil, “but to give you one small example, therapists are just humans, not robots.”
Phillips narrates: “Before my psilocybin experience, let’s say if you and I went for therapy together, and you said something suggesting that you weren’t happy with the treatment, I could get defensive.”
“I’d be like, ‘Oh no, I’m a bad therapist.’ And that energy would be experienced by the client, which I don’t want,” Phillips offers. “Soon after my experience with psilocybin, I’m not defensive anymore. I encourage my clients and I’m curious to understand. I’m open, and my clients are more honest with me.”
Phillips is one of the first five healthcare professionals to complete TheraPsil’s psychedelic-assisted therapy training program with legal psilocybin. While he has been in practice since 1988, he tells us that psilocybin mushrooms brought “massive changes” in his personal and professional life.
TheraPsil, a non-profit patient rights advocacy organization in Canada, is training its practitioners to legally hold space for each other using psilocybin mushrooms as a part of that program. The healthcare trainees are learning from their journeys to become better companions when they professionally treat patients with severe depression and end-of-life distress.
Health Canada granted exemptions to 19 healthcare professionals for psychedelic psychotherapy training last December, allowing them to consume psilocybin, a Schedule III substance in Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The list of exempted professionals included psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical counsellors, social workers, general practitioners, and nurses, all of whom are involved in the process of psychedelic-assisted therapy.
Of the first five individuals who recently completed their training, Natasha Fearnley, Clinical Intake Director at TheraPsil, became the first Canadian nurse to be trained for psychedelic-assisted therapy.
Canada’s First Nurse to Undergo Psychedelic-assisted Psychotherapy Training
“I felt like I needed to understand how this medicine can help people in such a powerful way,” Natasha Fearnley says.
Fearnley has opened a new avenue for nurses in the medical model of psychedelics. “I think that often there are therapists, and physicians who are brought into the picture of psychedelics and nurses have a huge role to play, but are sometimes forgotten about,” she tells Truffle Report.
Nurses are often the first to communicate with the patients, involved in every single process from the initial screening stage to being there with the patients in their most vulnerable times.
Having her own experience with psilocybin as a nurse, Fearlyn shares that she has been feeling grounded as a person, and more present with the people she has been interacting with.
“The big insight from my psychedelic experience was that often mental health stems from people feeling like they’re alone with their hurt, and they’re alone with their struggle, and they don’t feel like they have anyone they can really talk to, or anyone that understands them, and humans just need connection, and we’re all missing that,” she says.
She continues, “I want to be in a place where I provide a safe container for humans to feel in connection, and then use these medicines, while they’re in that safe container. I am holding space for them. You could say, `I’m there.’”
Repeated Hints at Growing Demand for Psychedelic-assisted Therapy
“We believe in the next five to 10 years we’re going to need thousands of therapists trained, and they have to have their own experience to safely hold space for a patient,” Phillips says. “You can see the bottleneck where it’s happening. And that’s why we have to put pressure on Health Canada to open this up to grant exemptions to these therapists.”
Although proven beneficial, psychedelics are known for amplifying emotions and require trained professionals to maintain set and setting for an effective supervised healing process. Ever since the first four exemptions granted to patients dealing with end-of-life distress by Health Canada, there’s been a rise in demand and applications submitted for using psychedelics as a therapeutic measure.
“The genie’s out of the bottle, people know about this and are asking for it, and it’s going to get tougher and tougher,” Phillips says. “I hope Health Canada recognizes that the most prudent way forward is to trust organizations like TheraPsil and others who want to do it professionally and safely, and help us train therapists so we can meet this growing demand of Canadians for this treatment.”
Officially launching in March, the ten-week long training program was crafted to test the beta model, and has now expanded to train more practitioners, most of whom are waiting on their Health Canada exemptions.
“What we do in the cohort is we form the participants into dyads halfway through the course. For 10 weeks, they’ve got to be working with each other, preparing intentions, creating a relationship of safety, because even though they’re professional based on their own issues. We’re just humans too,” Phillips, who is the lead trainer in the beta-version program, shares.
The “conceptual framework” put together for the relatively new therapy model in its beta version, Phillips says, has now been improved on “with all the pieces of the course holding together and getting more clear on how to teach it effectively.”
“The objective I have is that therapists are trained to safely and effectively hold space. I’m getting better at getting closer to that objective,” Phillips expresses. “I think the students would say, although many of them haven’t had their own experiences, they’ve been well prepared for the three phases of treatment: preparation, the dosing session and integration.”
Ritika is a Toronto-based reporter. She writes about drug policies and developments in psychedelics.