Psychologists should learn about psychedelics

Published in Human Parts

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The Ghost in the Machine by Amy Hiley

Fluorescent lights. Plastic cups with pointed bottoms dangle from the water machine. A Top 40 hit blasts, the kind that could never be background music. It demands your full attention, consumes all senses, and shuffles all thought. There’s a flat-screen TV on the wall, but thankfully it’s off. Magazines stacked between me and other patients. Psychology Today. Frankie. LivingNow. Better Homes and Gardens. Tightly woven grey carpet. Neon flyers that read “On relationships,” “Let’s talk about drinking,” “Anger management,” and “Building emotional resistance.” A hand sanitizer pump next to the scented tissues. The soft sound of fingers on a keyboard underneath the still-blaring tune. All of it contributing to a heavy static in the air.

I’m at Melbourne Psychology to get a full mental health assessment.

Nervous about the appointment, I drank for the first time in a while last night and took a cannabis pill on my way here. It shouldn’t be so scary to seek help, to name what’s happening in my brain, but here I sit, frantic, wondering how I could possibly reveal all that’s going on in my mind across three one-hour sessions. I repeat the words of a friend for reassurance: “The map is not the territory.”

He’s 10 minutes late, but I’m happy to wait.

I’ve thought about getting a diagnosis for a while. Scheduled appointments and canceled after hearing the price. Called in feeling unwell and bailed out feeling better. I’ve developed a plethora of coping mechanisms and figured they sufficed. But this year was different. I’ve started to realize I’m not so unique in my suffering, and I’ve shed some of the arrogance preventing me from reaching out for professional help.

~

“Hi Erica, nice to meet you. Come through.”

I follow him down a blue hallway. Passing shut doors, I can hear murmurs through the cracks. I’m terrified. How am I going to fill him in on all this? How can I convince him the disorder of my reality is real if it’s all in my head?

As soon as we sit down and start chatting, I calm down a bit. He asks me about my history. Whether or not I’ve been to therapy before, family ties, habitual tendencies. I tell him about the counselors I’ve seen and how they’ve helped me begin to piece together some of my stories. He reads every word I speak and takes notes.

“Now tell me a bit about your drug history.”

I give my spiel. It’s long. Hard drugs in my teens… pot daily for maybe too long, on and off… but psychedelics were always different. Even if I started using them purely recreationally, they were profound beyond expression. I would wake up the next day without a hangover. Feeling clear, renewed.

Then I tell him about more recent psychedelic use in ceremonial settings.

“Riiight… okayyy… but it’s still just another temporary fix, right? Like, it never lasts.”

I discombobulate. “No…? They definitely do something. Those experiences are in me, a part of me. They altered the expression of my DNA in some way, it was a physical download and reboot, and while the ‘afterglow’ may only last a few weeks, I’m constantly reminded by that beauty, by those teachings…”

In the weeks that follow, things seem to click. I’m better able to notice the patterns from within, see where I’m leaking energy, and practice a shift.

“They were some of the most beautiful experiences of my life,” I continue.

“Mmhmm… okayyyyy…” he says behind a tight lip with wide eyes, looking down at his scribbling hand. He’s visibly concerned.

~

I can sympathize with skepticism of psychedelic evangelism. But that experience — with a trained psychologist — hurt. His reaction felt like a hiss. As if those disclosures were nothing but further evidence of my sickness. I know the totality of my drug use hasn’t been the healthiest. I do want to slow down my consumption in general. But rarer experiences ingesting large doses of hallucinogenic plants have, to this day, been some of the most significant, ontological, and radical in my life. And other people seem to share this interpretation.

His professional reaction felt dismissive and condescending toward something I hold to be true.

This is a bioethical issue skating the lines of belief and biology. Psychedelic use, in some cases, bridges the two. Between the mystical and the physical, or the mystical in the physical. And modern health professionals haven’t been trained on how to react to this kind of information. He seemed to plop it into a large bin of “the illicit, The Bad.” He seemed to use it against my case, as a red flag, more proof or root of my madness.

I left that first appointment fully aware that I am dabbling in an outdated system. But I still left feeling better than I arrived, and was happy to continue seeing him to complete the diagnostic interviews and tests.

~

People studying the mind should be taught about mind-altering drugs. Modern psychotherapists should understand how drugs other than pharmaceuticals function. They don’t necessarily need to enroll in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy training at CIIS, but they should understand the general uses, outcomes, and practices around drugs used to treat depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, and eating disorders — even if those treatments are happening in underground circles or research settings.

As long as mental health professionals remain ignorant about the distinctions between illicit substances and the effects of psychedelics, they will continue to pass inconsiderate judgment onto their patients who, in confidence, reveal their use. This can make patients feel ridiculed and ashamed of experiences they might revere as sacred, much as a religious person would consider prayer.

People studying the mind should be taught about mind-altering drugs.

Mental health professionals should be sensitive to patient psychedelic use. Before labeling intentional use as another form of destructive behavior, they should learn a bit about its underlying mechanics and therapeutic potential.

In addition to psychological education, I believe any modern philosophy exploring the human condition that doesn’t consider altered states of consciousness — especially those induced by DMT — to be outdated. These states may hold keys to understanding consciousness and the nature of being. Even if the edges of psychedelic insight are beyond human capacity and measurement, even if the unknown knows more, researchers are beginning to take these chemicals seriously after a long nap.

It’s worth noting that scientists came to understand the function of serotonin in the brain and mental illness thanks to the discovery of LSD. These chemicals have a lot to teach, and they’ve helped unlock discoveries across a range of disciplines. Educators should include a basic understanding of psychedelics — their properties, effects, and potentials — in curricula across psychology, neuroscience, ontological/existential philosophy, bioethics, and anthropology. To start.

~

Despite this apparent lag, I appreciate the chance to meet the developing field of psychology where it’s at — just as it meets me where I’m at, as a patient.

I returned for my final appointment to receive the results. I paid a total of $800 AUD out-of-pocket. Most of the surveys he had me take I had already taken online.

He gave me a working diagnosis. Bipolar commingled with some other conditions. “There’s a lot going on.” Nothing shocking. He recommended finding a therapist experienced with my conditions. Maybe some group therapy. And then he circled the name of a clinic and a psychiatrist who could recommend and prescribe SSRIs.

I nodded, willing to explore my options. But I’m still patiently waiting for psychedelic-assisted therapy. Hell, even psychedelic-aware therapy. It’s coming. It’ll be here soon, and it’s time for academia to start updating its material.

Thoughts?