GDS 2020: Psychedelics under supervision

Professor Adam R Winstock, Consultant Psychiatrist and Director GDS

From traditional healers and neo-shamans to high end retreats and treks in the jungle, we want you to share your experience.

Last year GDS2019 explored the acceptability of psychedelics in psychiatry. This year we take a closer look into how people are currently using diverse substances including LSD, MDMA, ketamine, ayahuasca, DMT, kambo and ibogaine to try and treat their own health and wellbeing. We suspect many will use these drugs by themselves – perhaps having a clear intention of the issue they wish to resolve or consider with the new perspectives offered by a psychedelic experience. We also know many seek supervision or guidance to assist in this process.

The type of support or guidance people may access will vary and this will influence the setting and outcome of the experience. Guidance may be formalised within a retreat or through the use of a credentialed therapist or with a medic operating ‘underground’. It might be part of a religious or ceremonial event or maybe though attendance at an informal gathering hosted by a non-traditional healer. The qualifications, experience and intent of those offering guidance will also be diverse.

I have met psychiatrists and clinical psychologists who despite knowing they may be risking their careers, so value the addition of psychedelics to their work, that they offer such services as a side-line ‘on the quiet’. I have met other people who have pitched up to a random venue, handed over their $200 and taken ayahuasca, along with 30 other people overseen by a ‘neo-shaman’.  Supervised psychedelic session are thus not a single entity.

A few years age GDS looked briefly at the type of pre-trip assessment that people who sought supervision for their psychedelic experience reported they were given. Almost 60% said no enquiry was made of their past psychiatric history or medications they might be on. As a psychiatrist this rang alarm bells. People who are desperate in their lives are among some of the most vulnerable people in society.

The offer of an ‘instant cure’ or a swift path to the root of their problems, replete with full resolution is very tempting. This desire may mean that people not ideally suited to intense psychedelic experiences, may be attracted to engage with them. This is far from what occurs within clinical trials, where participants undergo screening and careful assessment. The drug sessions are planned and closely supervised. Follow up sessions to support integration of the experience are considered essential components of the therapy. And of course, the presence of a therapist / guide should add to, not detract from the experience.

Psychedelics are boom business. GDS wants to ensure that the amazing progress that has been achieved through rigorous trials are not derailed by random occasions of poor practice and that vulnerable people are not placed in harm’s way. We want to know what best practice is and how it is delivered. We want to know what substances most are commonly used and the positives and negatives that follow from underground psychedelic sessions.

If you have taken a psychedelic under supervision, with a guide or attended a retreat or healing ceremony in the last 12 months and want to help us make drug use safer, please take 20-30 minutes to take part in GDS2020: