By David S. Prescott, LICSW, and Natalie Villeneuve, MSW, RSW
It’s been just about a year since we published the first of two blogs, an article, and a conference presentation about sexual and other interpersonal abuses in what is referred to as the psychedelic therapy “community.” These followed a thoroughly sourced podcast by Lily Kay Ross and Dave Nickles, whose work has been featured in media reports throughout much of the world (including this interview). Still, very little has changed. Some organizations have commented on abuse and floated ethics policies and statements but taken no further action. There is little doubt of the sometimes-transformative power of psychedelic drugs. The worrisome part is the unacceptable level of risk for trauma outside of ethical practice, which itself is not always carefully defined.
Strikingly absent, however, has been any
accountability at the source of abuse,
either the ones who perpetrate it or who are responsible for the environments
where it occurs. Like the #MeToo movement
Even among trauma experts, there can be a lack of compassionate responses. Some practitioners employing psychedelics in treatment have openly minimized those who speak out about and disclose abuse so they “don’t end up derailing the movement.” Other psychedelic proponents have suggested that subjects of abuse, while worthy of support, are not credible commentators since they are still so raw and vulnerable in the wake of their experiences. These subjects rightly point to public perceptions that they can only be taken seriously when they are the “perfect victim.”
Meanwhile, opponents speaking out against
these abuses are occasionally surprised at the reactions they get. Some
responses come from people with similar experiences of abuse, while others
Most recently, Ross and Nickles engaged
with the production team of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, who were
interested in learning more about the potential risks and harms in current
psychedelic-assisted therapy. As the Psymposia website describes it, “Last Week Tonight has a history of
highlighting the self-serving tactics of unaccountable corporations, the
failures of regulatory agencies to act in the public interest, and the
complicity of the mainstream media in advancing narratives that serve the
powerful.” Even so, the resulting program made no mention of the widely
emerging concerns documented
There is ample cause for concern. Psychedelic-assisted therapy is becoming big business, with numerous media articles addressing the pros and cons of investment in the industry. Entire papers have been published on the legalization of psychedelic drugs, while others address patents for them. How can there be so little consideration for preventing abuse? Especially against a backdrop when so many claim that “there’s no such thing as a bad trip”? One training appeared to minimize the issues by referring to instances of abuse as “erotic transference” in its title.
Perhaps more importantly, how can we ignore the voices of those who have been victimized by the people they trusted, while under the influence of powerful drugs? These survivors could inform prevention efforts as well or better than anyone. In a recent conversation, one person who publicly disclosed abuse while in psychedelic therapy stated, “Maybe it’s because so many people don’t know what to do with it.”
This idea, that most people simply don’t know how to handle accounts of abuse and trauma, is an excellent point. Bearing witness to abuse, suffering, and anguish is not easy, particularly for anyone who never had to. Thinking back on the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter (and other) protests, the Jeffrey Epstein abuses, and so many other circumstances, it often seems that most people simply want abuse and exploitation to go away. It can be hard to listen to accounts of abuse; it can be even harder to sit with another’s pain. More challenging still is bearing witness to the aftereffects of prolonged abuse (for example, being abused while on psychedelic drugs in a purportedly therapeutic situation that was supposed to help resolve a history of trauma). Most people who are able to show up and be present with survivors have learned their skills the hard way, through their own victimization.
While many therapists (and friends and allies) show up to this work every day, it’s easy to avoid, forget, or not see the sheer depth of human suffering. The literature provides all sorts of material about effective trauma treatment techniques, protocols, methods, and models. However, few educational programs provide much focus on the simple act of sitting in a room with a person in anguish and remaining clear, compassionate, and present with them.
New approaches to reducing suffering are
welcome, although the current hype of the psychedelic movement is reminiscent
of many “miracle cures” of the past.
Until we as a society can look at our own suffering and prioritize the
needs of people who have been victimized, it is difficult to see how anything
will improve. While we rush into the heady promise of new drugs, maybe we can
also remember the importance of being an ally to those who suffer.