‘A jet fuel for therapy’

The promise of therapeutic psychedelics

Written by Karen Long

Much like retro fashion from the 1960s and ‘70s, a certain class of retro drugs is back in vogue, showing real results as breakthrough treatments for people wrestling with mental health disorders, from depression and anxiety to addiction and PTSD. After languishing in the wilderness of the war on drugs, psychedelic drugs like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and MDMA are back in the news. Except this time around, instead of sweaty, long-haired, beaded hippies tripping in a party atmosphere, it is very serious therapists who are training to administer hallucinogens to their clients in a controlled environment, and to help them process the experience afterwards.

The results of a much-hailed Phase 3 trial were released earlier this year, funded by MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. In the study of 90 veterans who had suffered from PTSD for an average length of 14 years, MDMA-assisted therapy was found to be “highly efficacious in individuals with severe PTSD, and treatment is safe and well-tolerated, even in those with comorbidities.” In fact, after three sessions of MDMA-assisted therapy, 60 percent of subjects no longer even met the diagnosis for PTSD, and 30 percent of that group were considered to be in remission.

Studies into various psychotropic substances are now taking place around the globe, and in the U.S. training programs are springing up for healthcare professionals who want to gain credentials in administering substances still classified by the federal government as Schedule 1 drugs.

In 2019 the city of Denver decriminalized psilocybin, the active ingredient that puts the “magic” in magic mushrooms. According to the “Los Angeles Times,” other municipalities soon followed, including Santa Cruz, California; Washington, D.C. and Cambridge, Massachusetts. In over 100 cities there are now movements to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms, and in November of last year Oregon legalized psilocybin for use in supervised therapy.

The demand is high

Two Wichita therapists who’ve seen a growing demand for hallucinogenic treatments are the husband-and-wife team at Brockus Therapy. Even while finishing up his master’s in marriage and family therapy at Friends University, Bryan Brockus had eager clients asking him when psychedelic therapy would be available. His wife, Ashley Brockus, frequently hears her clients asking the same question.

Word is getting out that both therapists are trained in MDMA-assisted therapy through MAPS, the respected non-profit organization funding research and setting protocols. MDMA, known on the street as ecstasy or molly, is still illegal outside of approved clinical trials. “When it becomes legal only therapists who’ve been through the MAPS training will be able to practice it, and they’ll need to have a doctor who prescribes for them,” explains Bryan. “We’ll have all the pieces in place when status is granted by the FDA, expected in 2023.”

Bryan and Ashley are also trained in ketamine-assisted psychedelic therapy through Polaris Insight, an organization started by MAPS-trained therapists who wanted to offer clients a legal therapy without delay, by prescribing the drug off-label.

“Ketamine is basically a dissociative anesthetic that’s been used in surgery for years and years,” says Bryan. “Clinicians started noticing that, once people received high doses, their depressive symptoms would be gone for several days, up to a week.”

While there are ketamine clinics in town, the Brockus’ say they typically offer a straightforward medical treatment. “They don’t sit with clients and do active therapy with them before, during or after, and that’s a really essential piece when you’re doing psychedelic therapy,” explains Ashley. “It provides the relationship and a strong container to hold space and some really good tools to guide people with.”

The client experience on ketamine

The Brockus’ are currently working with Dr. Jeff Davis of Prairie Health and Wellness to offer a ketamine protocol in the near future, with Dr. Davis as the prescribing physician. The actual ketamine session, however, will take place in the Brockus’ facility, in a “very non-clinical setting” where the client reclines on a couch or bed while wearing eye shades and surrounded by music.

“The experience is very much to go internal, to go inside yourself. The client can talk as much or as little as they want to,” says Bryan. After the three-hour session, when the client is coming back into their body, The Brockus’ will engage them in an “integration session” reflecting on their experience.

In the standard one-hour talk therapy session, there’s not much time for people to work past mental walls. In a longer and more intense session — such as three hours for ketamine or six to eight hours for MDMA — the psychotropic substances help those defenses come down.

“People open up a lot faster and get to places that might take years to get to in regular talk therapy,” says Bryan. “It’s a jet fuel, essentially, for therapy.”

Ashley adds that work with psychedelics doesn’t negate the deep trauma work that people do with their therapists. “The ketamine research shows that people who experienced the best outcomes with ketamine therapy had two to three years — or more — of trauma therapy work behind them.”

Bryan’s story

Bryan has been on the other side of the couch as a client receiving psychedelic-assisted therapy outside of the U.S. He started off training as a therapist, but, due to his own struggles with depression and chronic anxiety, that dream was put on hold. For the last 11 years he’s been working as a firefighter, in the meantime seeing several traditional therapists, none of whom he found helpful. “I couldn’t access the person who I knew was underneath all of that. I felt very frozen.”

He says he started hearing about the psychedelic treatments and investigated further.

“It really intrigued me and I was able to have several of my own experiences, and it really was life changing for me, and healing to where I then thought, ‘This is what I want to be able to do with people.’ ”

Now, after graduating with his master’s degree in July, Bryan is still working as a firefighter and practicing therapy part time. He’ll soon be in a position to help other first responders heal from job-related PTSD with the help of ketamine-assisted therapy.

“My hope is that I can work with them, having been in their position, that maybe they will trust me a little bit more. They would know that I could understand their experience on a visceral level.”

The Brockus’ are careful to explain that psychedelic-assisted therapy is not a panacea, it’s not effective in every case, and they plan to use it hand-in-hand with traditional therapy. Ashley is also trained in Somatic Experiencing and uses the Internal Family Systems approach, both of which mesh nicely with psychedelic therapy.

But, still, the couple is enthusiastic about the promise of psychedelic-assisted therapies opening up new avenues of healing and possibility for their clients. “It’s pretty exciting to think about a whole new approach that has a lot more potential to help people experience freedom,” says Ashley.

Bryan adds: “I want people to know it’s available and that there is hope. If you feel stuck, if you’ve tried therapy, if you’ve tried traditional ways to heal yourself but it hasn’t been helpful, there’s this other way.”

REFERENCES

Nature Medicine: “MDMA-assisted therapy for severe PTSD: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 3 study”

L.A. Times: “Denver dabbles with magic mushrooms, but using them to treat mental health disorders remains underground”

 
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