TheraPsil understands that if psychedelic therapy is to be the saving grace so many believe it will be, one area of supply is most crucial: qualified practitioners. Last month, five healthcare practitioners were the first in Canada to undergo psilocybin-assisted therapy legally, as part of an experiential training program offered through the non-profit organization.
These healthcare professionals included doctors, therapists, and a nurse, and were among a larger group granted exemptions by Canada’s federal health minister Patty Hajdu back in December 2020, nearly six months after their requests were initially filed.
Based on the west coast in Victoria, British Columbia, TheraPsil advocates strongly for experiential practitioner learning with psilocybin, in which trainees undergo the same process they hope to help administer, so they can better understand the impact of the therapy and medicine they intend to work with.
Meet The Therapist Leading The Training
An advisor to TheraPsil, Dave Phillips has been a registered clinical counsellor for 30 years and is currently teaching 21 doctors, therapists, and nurses across Canada how to safely facilitate psilocybin therapy, with a focus on palliative patients.
After years of working with the same paradigms around trauma, Phillips recognizes that existing solutions around mental health––talk therapy included––are insufficient:
“There’s no shortage of caring, but if a certain trauma walks into my office, I know in an instant that we’re looking at an on-again, off-again relationship for the next five to 10 years,” he says. “Some people have beautiful stories of recovery, and their lives have changed. But the vast majority of people, they don’t get better.”
He wasn’t always a believer in psychedelic medicine, but in 2016, new evidence about experimental psychedelic therapies began to emerge, and news of a study about the use of MDMA for PTSD caught him off guard.
“My first response was, ‘whatever,’” he admits. A month later, he read another article, this time about psilocybin and its use in a trial at Johns Hopkins for end-of-life anxiety. “I said, ‘If this could help my clients, I need to understand it.”
After studying the literature Phillips was convinced, and recognized that if he wanted to work with psychedelic substances, he’d have to undergo experiences of his own.
“This is a completely new paradigm of care,” he says of the work.
The course Phillips teaches for TheraPsil isn’t so much about psychedelics, he says, as “how to safely and effectively guide a therapeutic psilocybin experience, from meeting people, preparing them, and holding space for them, to integrating their experience.”
For those with a federal exemption, the 10-week course ends with a module where they practice the skills they’ve learned on each other as patients and facilitators.
Should doctors and nurses working with patients undergoing psychedelic-assisted therapy be required to have a personal experience with psychedelics? For many, Phillips included, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
“You cannot safely and effectively hold space for someone in an altered state if you don’t have firsthand knowledge of that altered state,” he says. “You have to know it, you can’t just read about it in a textbook. We have mandated that as a requirement of the course.”
Stalling Federal Government Holds Up The Program
Since the initial exemptions were granted, Health Canada has failed to grant further requests from healthcare workers and has seemingly prioritized those of patients, stalling the training of dozens of hopeful practitioners. TheraPsil has helped 30 patients apply for exemptions since August 2020, and with growing demand, more therapists are needed, and quickly.
Until more doctors are granted exemptions by the health minister to use psilocybin and undergo training, TheraPsil says patients seeking out this psilocybin-assisted therapy will face a bottleneck.
“This would be akin to if patients required exemptions to access chemotherapy, but have virtually no physicians trained in how to administer it,” says Spencer Hawkswell, TheraPsil’s CEO.
Canada’s Only Nurse With Legal Psilocybin Training
TheraPsil’s clinical intake director, Natasha Fearnley, is a registered nurse and the only nurse in Canada to have legally undergone psilocybin-assisted therapy as part of the training program.
Fearnley says prior to the training module, she had used mushrooms recreationally, and eventually through her own understanding of the models, in the context of trying to provide herself psychedelic psychotherapy—eye shades, therapy, integration and all. But this experience, guided by colleagues Adrian Oberg and Anne-Marie Armour, she says, was something completely different.
“There was this whole other level of being in training and reflecting on patients, building a relationship with these trained practitioners, and being supported and prepared in a way that was so well structured,” Fearnley says. “It was the most powerful experience of my life.”
As the first point of contact for patients who are seeking TheraPsil’s assistance, it’s her job to provide patients with education while learning about their medical history. Her passion for psychedelic medicine was sparked in 2017, and as a nurse, she has experience in palliative care and geriatrics, so the opportunity to participate in the training program was a natural fit.
“I really feel like there’s a deeper sense of trust between us when they know that I’ve done this medicine,” she says. “There is a huge benefit for people providing this treatment to have had this treatment themselves.”