SXSW 2024: How Can We Train the Next Generation of Psychedelic Therapists?

Learning how to use psychedelic-assisted therapy to help account for "all dimensions" of a person – the physical, mental, emotional, and the spiritual.

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Credit: SXSW / Sunny Strasburg

How can we effectively and safely train the next generation of psychedelic therapists to guide their clients through “transformational psychedelic experiences” in an ethical, grounded manner? 

SXSW 2024, which ran from March 8-13 in Austin, Texas, wanted to bring this very nuanced subject front-and-center for an hour-long discussion in an attempt to better understand these strategies. The panel, “A Holistic Approach to Psychedelic Training,” which True Hollywood Talk attended, was hosted by Scarlet Martius, the Head of Community at Tactogen, who was also joined by fellow panelists Sunny Strasburg, LMFT, Lauren Taus, LCSW, and Melissa Whippo, LCSW.

Martius kicked off the panel emphasizing that training must take into account “all dimensions” of a person – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – for both the therapist and client. Right now, we live in a world where we all at some level suffer from loneliness, where we feel disconnected (in whole or in part) from the rest of the world around us, commonly known as ‘disassociation.’

Safely Holding Space for the Client’s ‘Wholeness’

Taos, a licensed clinical social worker, has been practicing psychotherapy for many years, gravitating towards psychedelic-assisted therapy later in her life after experiencing significant personal suffering and seeking help through plant medicines. 

She expanded upon this idea of “holistic,” and what it means to live in a world that is “deeply, deeply disintegrated and fractured.” 

“I know that those who are interested in this kind of work often come from their own wounding, and their own desire to to heal themselves…[and] I want to hold spaces where we can learn together and we can respect the individual expertise that is present, always,” she added noting that within a psychedelic psychotherapy training context, there is an aspect of ‘intimacy’ that is present. 

“We don’t really learn how to be in a relationship with our clients, much less in a relationship with ourselves. And so in some ways, classical education is contradictory to the work that we’re talking about and efforting to teach,” Tao explained. 

Sharing more with the audience about her gravitation towards this space, Taos revealed that it was later in life that she came to any sort of psychoactive. “I’m very much the unlikely ‘drug girl’…and it was very much me on my knees in a desperate cry for help, and I was in a lot of pain. I live in the light, and I know what it’s like to live in the dark,” she elaborated. 

For Taos, the holistic approach is about inviting the “whole person,” rather than the traditional classical psychotherapy approach:

“Classical psychotherapy asks for the erasure of the practitioner, to be just a blank wall. I know that we hurt and heal in the context of a good relationship. I’m in a relationship with my people. I love them. And my clients know that I love them.”

She confidently stated that she’s “not afraid to use that word,” believing the word itself needs rehabilitation, especially in the field. “So, when we’re working in teaching in a context that is loving, it invites the individual to really deepen themselves, so that they can understand their boundaries. If you’re in deep self energy, where you stop and start, and it’s from that place that we have a more holistic context to offer healing work.”

Masius then asked the panelists about the core components of training that would be necessary for this next generation of psychedelic therapists to be able to effectively and safely hold people as they’re moving into that depth Taos vividly shared. 

It’s a complex and nuanced skill to be a psychedelic therapist,” Strasburg admitted. “You have to be a really amazing therapist, also have done your own [independent] work, have your own experiences with psychedelic medicine, and then really great training in psychedelic therapy.

Strasburg, a psychotherapist originally trained in archetypal psychology and EMDR, is specifically trained in Internal Family Systems (IFS) and provides clinicians with her insight as a trainer to help explore this form of care through her proprietary “PANTHER” Method. 

Her debut book, “The Theradelic Approach,” which was released last year, equips clinicians with trauma-informed psychedelic-assisted therapy methods, blending IFS, EMDR, archetypal psychology, trauma-informed care, and her extensive experience. The majority of Strasburg’s time is spent working with AI, technology, business, investment, and entertainment leaders, helping foster empathy and connectivity by teaching them to lead with more “self-energy” rather than from their traumatized parts. 

But having been trained in different psychedelic therapy programs, she left those training programs with more questions than when she started. 

“I left those training programs really feeling like I didn’t know what to do when there weren’t specific tools taught to me,” she admitted, adding that she’s a big advocate today of teaching people specific tools. “An open-ended treatment plan for creativity and to meet the client where they are, but also to interweave specific techniques.”

For those who haven’t had a chance to read Strasburg’s book, it introduces the “PANTHER” Method – preparation, attunement, needs of the protectors, trauma mapping, holding space, empathy and engagement, and resolution and integration

“And within each of those steps in the PANTHER Method, I teach, for example, in the preparation, needs of the protectors is an Internal Family Systems approach of really inviting the protector system – we all have protectors that protect us from our more vulnerable parts or exiles – and so teaching clinicians what it means to invite the protectors forward before a medicinal journey, and to go deep and ask them [if they] have any questions or concerns about the upcoming session,” Strasburg explained. 

Strasburg said that in all of her trainings, she specifically teaches techniques for therapists to “slow down and not rush into the medicine journey,” which increases the safety and efficacy of the experience. 

It’s during this “golden hour,” Strasburg says, where the protectors are “down, regulated a bit, they’re softened,” which opens this expansive space for those in session to be able to utilize IFS such as EMDR to guide clients carefully.

So, How Can We “Slow Down?”

The next question Masius presented centered around the reality that healing is a lifelong process, as it is a very slow process. Specifically, how can we move in a direction of slowing down and encouraging both those who are receiving these treatments and those who are getting trained to give them, to slow down and to not advocate for quick fixes?

Whippo took the lead on this and shared her belief that while healing happens at its own pace, it’s not a linear process.

“Just coming out of graduate school, I think back to sitting with people, my first job was working in a hospice…working with people who had experienced the death of a loved one. I ran children’s groups for children who had experienced the death of a loved one, but I had no idea what I was doing. And now, I still don’t know that I have all the answers, but I have experience. And so for practitioners who are excited, it’s wonderful – that enthusiasm will get you far and slowing down what has been said – already doing our own personal work, keeping the ego in check, remembering that we as teachers, and facilitators do not have all the answers and that it’s really important to sit in the ineffable with people and go at the pace of the person in front of us – that goes for therapeutic practices, but also for teaching,” she described.

With this new chapter that exists, what are the benefits and some of the challenges in moving forward with a women led front for this training?

Whippo, a licensed clinical social worker, acknowledged that this is a time of transformation where the “feminine is rising” while people are talking about it and others are simply listening. Having spent the last 20 years providing therapy for individuals, couples, and families, she also serves as the founder of Deva Collective, a research non-profit focused on research at the intersection of psychedelics and women’s health. 

And according to Whippo, a “fully integrated feminine” includes “the masculine,” noting that it’s not about either/or.

…this is not about superiority, competition, scarcity or capitalism – this is about innate wisdom,” she explained. 

Part of what she and Deva Collective are doing is to try and change the way in which research is conducted. 

“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is the most effective because it’s measurable. It’s really hard to measure the ineffable and to measure indigenous wisdom traditions. And what we’ve learned…is that we have to be quiet and listen.”

Whippo told SXSW attendees that her first psychedelic training was a Ketamine training, followed by a long apprenticeship and training with plant medicine. Eventually, she was encouraged by one of her teachers to do a ketamine-assisted psychotherapy training given that she was already a licensed therapist and working at an academic medical institution.

After returning home from her first ketamine training in the Peruvian Amazon, Whippo said that the team gave her medicine as part of her energetic cleansing, or “limpia.” 

“[They] gave me a lot of medicine, and they gave me 80 milligrams in an intramuscular injection. Now, even though ketamine dosing is not necessarily about size, 80 milligrams is a lot for me, and I, unfortunately, had a wonderful experience…and yet, that’s not how I like to work with ketamine with people. I really like a low and slow approach.”

Working primarily with mothers, Whippo says that the ability to “titrate this medicine” in a different way than what she was taught – is part listening, incorporating different aspects of her training and education in a holistic, more integrative way.

She also revealed to attendees that Deva Collective is currently working on its first study right now – microdosing the study of Perimenopause bodies who microdose San Pedro, a spineless variant of the cacti family. Due to its active ingredient ‘Mescaline,’ San Pedro is one of the most popular substances used in modern-day microdosing, and has been harnessed by many entrepreneurs to help increase productivity and creativity.

Perimenopause, better known as the transitional period before menopause, decreases women’s levels of estrogen, causing women to have “menopause-like” symptoms such as hot flashes or irregular periods, which can last for years. For Whippo and Deva, the underlying goal behind the study is to “open the doors for more studies that focus more specifically about how these plants – like San Pedro – and sacred medicines interact with the particular anatomy and hormonal fluctuations of the female body.” 

“The Deva Collective really seeks to have a place at the table that has been primarily dominated by white men. And we think all of the white men who have paved the way, but we would really like to encourage more expansiveness of the people who are showing up for the conversation, and the people who are offering these teachings and sharing these ways. And as people who are teachers and offering training, we want to do it in a good way,” she shared.

What Does Future Training Look Like?

Whippo wants to see a change in the way that the field conducts its research.

“I would really like an invite for all of us to put more emphasis on collecting information in an ethical way from wisdom keepers, and making sure that’s just as relevant as the body of placebo, randomized trials – both are important. 

She said that right now, there’s only a scant amount of evidence-based information available, but there is a lot of wisdom out there that we’ve only barely tapped to. “I would like to make that more relevant to hear from more feminine voices, and to hear from more indigenous black and people of color.”

Strasburg, on the other hand, expressed her desire to see more diversity in the representation of psychedelic medicine, and for those people who are trained, more access. 

“I would love to see just more breadth in what we appreciate, that it’s not just the medical approach. It’s not the indigenous approach. It’s not one or the other. It’s this beautiful, broad spectrum of all these ways of doing this medicine,” she explained. 

Acknowledging that there are elements that remain true regardless – acting ethically and being well-trained and attuned – there’s additional steps that therapists should be taking with their clients to better connect with one another.

“I’d love to see a world where therapists are talking more about the work that we’ve done on ourselves and opening up and being part of that conversation. You know, our own medicine work, and our own medicine journeys,” Strasburg noted. 

As for the future, she awaits this “next phase” of research where she and her colleagues are no longer proving that these medicines are effective – instead, with all the research done, turning to research on what kind of therapy works well with these medicines. 

Taus wants people to know what these medicines are and have safe access to them. 

“I really have a prayer for a different understanding of pain, which often looks like ‘addiction’. I’m also quite allergic to that word feels very diminishing to me. I have a prayer for clinics that can offer a wide range of options, based on what’s presented so that people can get the right and accurate medicine that feels best for them – and that is best for them. 

Having said that, Taus also deeply prays that in the future, we won’t need “so many drugs” and that instead, we know how to feel. 

“…and that we’re not scared to feel. That we know how to talk to each other. That we get really good within our individual relationships, resourcing and sharing, and being intimate in healthy ways. And at this point, we’re nowhere near that. In a practice of serving humanity in the ways in which I can, taking it all on is also a type of ‘violence.’