Helping someone taking magic mushrooms have a “good trip” can mean keeping them hydrated or playing Grateful Dead records to safely enjoy the ride.
But in the right setting, it can also become a form of therapy.
The UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics has started training doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and chaplains how to safely and effectively facilitate mind-bending hallucinogenic experiences to help heal and care for patients in a new certificate program.
Tina Trujillo, associate professor and faculty director of the nine-month research program, emphasized that psychedelic substances, alone, are not a magic pill for impactful experiences.
“One of the misconceptions is that we’re handing somebody a psychedelic and then just sitting with them; the skill set required is far more sophisticated than that,” Trujillo said. “For us, this is really a way to bridge the research and the practice, and that means professionalizing a field that doesn’t necessarily have agreed upon standards for quality, safety and ethical practices just yet.”
Additionally, she wants people to understand the distinction between a “trip sitter” — the colloquial word for someone who helps others feel safe during a psychedelic trip — and advanced professionals who have been trained as “facilitators” to better support an individual navigate the powerful thoughts and feelings that can pop up throughout the 8-plus hour journey.
Applications for the program’s second cohort opened in December.
These trainings have arrived at a time when more governments — including the Berkeley City Council — are debating loosening psychedelic prohibitions, and the Drug Enforcement Administration increased its quota to manufacture psilocin (a counterpart to the more commonly known psilocybin), MDMA, DMT and LSD for research purposes.
UC Berkeley’s program is currently prioritizing studying how a facilitator can ethically help patients use “shrooms,” as well as Ayahuasca and peyote, for health and spiritual care.
Trujillo, who has worked within the School of Education for 14 years and Center for the Science of Psychedelics since it opened in 2020, said her aim is to help develop a model for psychedelic guides who are trusting, supportive and have knowledge — ideally first-hand — of the at-times mystical phenomenons these drugs can conjure and how best to utilize the long-villainized natural substances as medicine.
“There’s the perception out there that if you ingest one of these substances, that substance in and of itself is going to lead to some quick fix,” Trujillo said. “But if you look at how psilocybin and mushrooms have been used historically, they’ve been used in these communal settings where you know who the healer is, you have a relationship with that person and that person is a part of the community. That’s not the way Western science is focused, so if we frame (these experiences) in that way, I think we’re missing or misunderstanding how some of these substances and plants have actually been used over the years.”
Many of the cohort’s members — with backgrounds ranging from neuroscience to ministry, social warfare to nursing, and education to journalism — will be trained in time to help work in newly legal spaces, such as licensed clinics and centers, which are popping up a half-century after then-President Richard Nixon and his “war on drugs” established steep legal consequences for selling, possessing or taking hallucinogens, which were classified as some of the most dangerous drugs in the 1970s.
In 2020, Oregon became the first state to green-light supervised, therapeutic administration of ketamine, an anesthetic chemical, and psilocybin — the technical name for “magic” mushrooms. The trend has since trickled from Washington, D.C., to Washington state. Colorado voters followed suit this November, decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms for people 21 years old or older and creating state-regulated “healing centers.”
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, pulled his statewide bill to allow possession and personal use of some hallucinogenic drugs after California lawmakers watered it down to only study decriminalization. However, city councils in Oakland and Santa Cruz have successfully diverted arrests and investigations for naturally growing psychoactive plants, which includes magic mushrooms, Ayahuasca and peyote.
Trujillo said the FDA has approved programs like UC Berkeley’s to use federally illegal drugs in order to study how low doses can impact healthy volunteers’ perception and representation, often using a combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging and “thoughtfully cultivated” therapist-driven psychophysics.
While the field is still in its infancy, scores of people — notably, many veterans — have already flocked to clinical trials on university campuses and weekend therapy retreats in Mexico to treat suicidal ideation, cognitive impairment, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
Michael Pollan, an award-winning journalist and UC Berkeley professor involved with the Center for the Science of Psychedelics, has long advocated that guides and therapists are necessary to properly study both the benefits and risks of the modern push to end the prohibition of psychedelics.
In August, Pollan told the San Francisco Examiner that “we’re going to need 100,000 trained psychedelic facilitators when psilocybin and MDMA are approved by the FDA, which is expected to happen within the next five years or so.”
In addition to enrolling people from a diverse range of professions, Berkeley News reported that 39 percent of the 24-member fall 2022 psychedelic facilitation cohort are also Black, Indigenous and other people of color. More than 80 people submitted applications for the first year, she said, and hundreds more inquired about the program.
Trujillo explained that diversity was made a priority because white and wealthy people have historically led conversations about and use of psychedelics.
“Right now, the field of psychedelics and psychedelic care is primarily accessible to more affluent and white communities, and one of the ways that we can shift that trend is to train facilitators who look like the communities who need access to this type of care,” Trujillo said. “You need facilitators who look like the populations you want to serve.”
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