Why This Woman Wants To Become A Psychedelic Therapist

Illustrated by Tyler Spangler.
Although current therapy and psychiatric medications can help many people struggling with mental illness, they don't work for everyone. For people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), researchers are discovering that the psychedelic drug MDMA may be more effective than traditional therapy. The idea is not that MDMA treats the blowback from things like sexual assault, war, or other traumatic experiences on its own, but that it assists and accelerates the progression of normal therapy by helping patients feel safe when discussing traumatic topics that would otherwise take much longer to delve into. The problem, however, is that MDMA is currently a schedule 1 drug, meaning it's considered to have no medical use and a high potential for addiction. Naturally, since MDMA remains illegal, therapists and other mental health experts aren't trained to use it the way they are to use, say, cognitive-behavioral therapy or current antidepressants. But the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is looking to change all of that. The organization has been key in helping researchers conduct clinical trials on psychedelic drug-assisted psychotherapy for decades now, and MDMA is now on track to be an FDA-approved medication by 2021. With that comes a new need for "psychedelic therapists" — people who are uniquely qualified to guide patients through the experience and help them digest what they've learned. To that end, MAPS hopes to train 300 psychedelic therapists before that 2021 deadline. And Sara Gael, a 30-year-old integrative therapist based in Boulder, CO, is one of the few who has already made it through the program. Here's what she has to say about this new development in therapy, and why she thinks it might radically change people's lives.
What is your current work like?
"I currently work for MAPS in two capacities: As a harm reduction training and education coordinator for the Zendo Project, and since 2014 I’ve been involved with the MDMA and PTSD study in Boulder. "In my private practice, I work with people who are looking to integrate psychedelic experiences that they’ve had [into the rest of their lives]. I also work with individuals who are having spiritual emerge experiences, spiritual awakenings, and help them integrate their experiences."

When people take psychedelic drugs, they have these really big experiences and it can be difficult to relate that to their personal lives.

Sara Gael
Why is integration important?
"Sometimes we find that when people take psychedelic drugs, they have these really big experiences and it can be difficult to relate that to their personal lives... In the Zendo Project, we work with people having difficult experiences while they're on the drug. But then, in the months that follow, there can also be some distress because these new ideas haven’t yet fully been incorporated into the individual’s belief system and perceptions about the world. The contrast that’s felt between that expansion and the person’s previous consciousness can be disturbing."

What's different about psychedelic therapy?
"Part of the struggle for normal talk therapy is that, when the [patient with PTSD] is addressing their trauma and being asked to remember things that happened, they can become highly activated or dissociated. The MDMA increases the window of tolerance — the capacity to hold difficulty — so [the patient] can access difficult emotions and memories. Then, those are allowed to be felt, and feeling them allows the patient to process and integrate their trauma. It helps them relegate the experience to the past. "It gives people the freedom to [separate their trauma from their identity]. They're even able to make meaning out of it, so much so that people see how this trauma shaped how they are today — to the point that they might say, 'Even though this was a challenging experience, I am aware that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without [it].' People can experience forgiveness and a letting go of the past. With that, we see a decrease in PTSD symptoms and an increase in [the patient's] well-being, their capacity to be in relationships with other people, and [their overall] social functioning."

Trauma affects our ability to connect with other humans on a very deep level.

Sara Gael
Why do you want to become a psychedelic therapist?
"What we’re finding right now is that there are few effective treatments on the market for chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. But there are many people with PTSD and many, many more with trauma (that might not be classified as PTSD). That trauma affects everybody — not just that person. It affects their family and their community. "Trauma is the most important thing to focus on in therapy in general, because it's often at the root of all of our other symptoms (e.g. depression, anxiety, addiction). And we need to expand our definition of trauma because, if most of us look inward through therapy, we start to realize that we were exposed to trauma even if we aren't living in an abusive home or a war zone. "[At its root,] trauma is often a result of interpersonal interactions, so it's based on relationships. That means that trauma affects our ability to connect with other humans. We live on a planet that is struggling, in a time that is incredibly difficult, but collectively, we’re starting to wake up and realize what we’ve been doing to each other. I think we need to [be] spending time, energy, and resources on finding effective treatments for trauma. "Psychedelic therapy addresses the root cause of PTSD symptoms, whereas other drugs manage symptoms. As far as we can tell from the research that’s been done with MDMA, this is one of the most effective treatments that’s been found for trauma. Nothing else compares even slightly to the results of the studies that are coming out — it’s just a huge margin of difference between MDMA and other drugs that are used to [only] manage PTSD symptoms."

More from Mind

R29 Original Series