I’m interested in becoming a psychedelic assisted therapist. How do I do that?
Great question, that I get asked a lot. With so much being written about this exciting area of research, it’s understandable that people want to get involved.
First of all, you need to get a professional credential, to become a “regular clinician” like an RN, NP, a clinical psychologist, a medical doctor, a marriage and family therapist, licensed professional counselor, clinical social worker, etc. I think it’s highly unlikely that these treatments will be permitted to be administered to patients in clinical settings by someone without a clinical license.
Which brings me to my next question – which clinicians will be allowed to give psychedelic treatments?
That’s really the $64,000 question right now. We really don’t know. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is ultimately in charge of deciding if a drug is safe and effective, and therefore approved for clinical use for a specific indication (illness). The FDA is skilled at regulating drugs, they’ve been doing it for decades. Where psychedelic assisted therapy is different is that it combines a drug with a therapy, and the FDA is unfamiliar with psychotherapy – what it is, and who are the myriad of clinicians that administer therapy. Some of the clinical trials underway have had to face this problem with the FDA and they have been requesting that one of the two clinicians be a MD or PhD psychologist. Obviously, this leaves out a lot of qualified professions, including nurses, psychotherapists, social workers, and even chaplains. As such, MAPS and other sponsors have lobbied the FDA to permit the second therapist to be from one of those professions, or even a trainee. But the decision on this hasn’t been finalized.
Until psilocybin and MDMA clear clinical trials, licensed clinicians may train to work with ketamine, an FDA approved anesthetic with psychedelic and antidepressant properties. The Kriya Institute suggests these trainings, and Nautilus Sanctuary, and Fluence are among several organizations training clinicians how to use this important, legal, medicine.
So if I do a program like CIIS, like you did, I’ll be certified to be a psychedelic therapist, right?
Hold on, not so fast. While programs at places like CIIS are becoming more common, and provide an excellent education in the subject, the opportunity to learn from the primary sources and researchers in the field, and to be part of a network of like-minded colleagues, they cannot promise that their curriculum will meet some future requirement of the FDA. They might, and that would be grand, but they equally might not. It’s kind of like if I offered a class in how to drive a flying car. I can speculate on what would be necessary knowledge, but until a flying car is invented, there will be a degree of conjecture. So in the absence of a clear path forward to being a psychedelic therapist, what would you suggest? Great question. First, learn all you can. Psychedelics enthusiasts are voracious writers and readers, so read everything you can. Subscribe to updates from the leading sponsors of these studies like MAPS, Usona, and Compass Pathways. Follow the work coming out of some of the leading academic centers in the world like John's Hopkins, UC Berkeley, and Imperial College, London. Understand who is paying for this work by looking at foundations like the Beckly Foundation and Dr Bronner's Soaps. Familiarize yourself with ongoing clinical trials by perusing clinicaltrials.gov. If you want to get experience in working with non-ordinary states of consciousness, psychedelic harm reduction is a great way to do that. The Zendo Project is an arm of MAPS, and provides mental health peer support at festivals around the world, providing excellent training and opportunities to volunteer. Also, since people with severe or life-threatening illness suffering psychological distress will be likely candidates for psychedelic therapy interventions, consider volunteering in a hospice setting (like Zen hospice in San Francisco or similar). If you're still in college, think about connecting to the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) or the Drug Policy Alliance.
I would also suggest training in techniques that will be complementary to psychedelic therapy, such as Hakomi, or Somatic Experiencing. Holotropic breathwork is another legal way of learning to work with non-ordinary states of consciousness.
Like all therapeutic practices, the therapy is only as good as the work that the therapist has done on themselves. I would encourage personal development in the form of individual psychotherapy, interpersonal growth workshops, grief work, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, etc as ways to build your own inner vessel so that you can be well prepared to help others. Some people will travel to parts of the world where psychedelics are legal to observe this experience or to participate themselves. It's smart to be familiar with the complexities of drug laws (for example, cannabis is legal in many states but remains illegal under federal law). I’m not a lawyer, and am not offering legal advice, but it’s good to be aware that licensing boards may look askance or even sanction such activities, so I will leave it to your good judgment if you choose to go this path.
If you do choose to enroll in a psychedelic education program, that’s great, and you’ll likely learn a lot. Just be clear about what it will and won’t allow you to do upon completion. Do it for the love of the work, with respect for the medicine, not necessarily because you have a specific job in mind, or because you think it will be a path to fame or fortune. People that work with psychedelics appreciate that they often have their own agendas and respect the wisdom that not knowing brings to the work.