As psychedelics gain traction in health care and community settings, comprehensive education is needed for care professionals and recipients alike.
By Moana Meadow and Rebecca Ashton-Dziedzan
In May, the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics graduated its first-ever cohort from the Psychedelic Facilitation Certificate Program: a diverse group of 23 advanced career professionals in the fields of medicine, social work, chaplaincy, psychiatry, nursing and midwifery. The inaugural cohort undertook nine months of intensive learning modules that brought together a socio-culturally and economically diverse group, including 40 percent BIPOC and at least 33 percent LGBTQIA+, two historically underrepresented communities.
“The intentionality of this program, its intimacy, didactic intersections, and real-time practices of equity and accessibility have renewed my approach and presence to my work,” said Felisha Thomas, a marriage and family therapist who is African-American and identifies as LGBTQIA+. Thomas, who practices in Southern California, joined the 2022 cohort with the support of the Center’s significant diversity scholarships.
Members of the historic cohort say exploring psychedelic facilitation in the context of a leading research university was a transformative experience. Though federal laws prohibit the use of most psychedelic substances outside of FDA-approved research studies, the BCSP instructional team developed a curriculum that includes what they believe to be the most essential elements in psychedelic care: spiritual care skills; psychotherapeutic methods; clinical science and research; ancestral entheogenic traditions; justice, equity, diversity and inclusion; ethics; somatics; reciprocity and ecological awareness; and contemplative science and practice.
Four features distinguish the BCSP Certificate Program’s model from other programs. Ninety percent of learning takes place in person, with a core team of instructors who bring deep expertise in key aspects of psychedelic-assisted care. Cohorts are capped at no more than 30 students to enable comprehensive learning through ongoing relationship-building and hands-on practice. The inclusive curriculum includes diverse perspectives, both in terms of the disciplines and the identities represented. And opportunities for ongoing learning, networking and mentorship are supported by an alumni professional development program and a fully-funded 1:1 mentoring program for members of marginalized groups.
Many BCSP graduates enrolled in response to the shifting legal landscape. “As a psychiatrist, I am aware of the need for more efficacious treatments for those who suffer from depression, addiction, and other mental illness,” said Renu Goel, an MD who is Indian-American and practicing in North Carolina. “I hope to offer my patients these treatments as soon as they become available.”
Three years ago, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics was initiated by an interdisciplinary group of faculty on the UC Berkeley campus, who proposed the campus’s first psychedelic research and other projects. Among them was Dr. Tina Trujillo, an equity-minded professor of education and leader in the Berkeley School of Education, who took on the role of Faculty Director to launch a professional preparation program for psychedelic facilitators. Dr. Trujillo emphasizes the importance of context in media reports on psychedelics:
“Mainstream media articles often mistakenly focus on the molecule itself, but what we see from the empirical work on psychedelics is that it’s not the substance alone that has the effect. It is likely that appropriate support before, during, and after the journey is equally important. Disseminating this knowledge to the public, and providing excellent training to professionals, is essential.”
Evidence suggests psychedelics carry potential healing benefits for veterans, the terminally ill and others with diagnoses such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. However, these potent substances require much more than standard clinical testing: the set, setting and the individuals administering the medicine can have a critical impact on the effectiveness of the treatment as well as the overall experience of the participant.
Comprehensively trained facilitators from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds will be necessary to support these evolving protocols in diverse communities: not just MDs and PhDs, but trained religious and spiritual care professionals, nurses, social workers and other professionals — all of whom Program leaders believe will be critical to providing affordable, safe, effective psychedelic-assisted care, regardless of one’s financial means.
Developing a team and building a curriculum
The interdisciplinary design echoes the nature of psychedelic medicines and traditional practices. These approaches to expanded states of consciousness tap into human and spiritual experiences that at times go beyond traditional categories of scientific knowledge and psychotherapeutic practice.
“We wanted to create a rigorous professional development program that would bridge the latest knowledge about clinical research, safety and ethics in expanded states of consciousness, the spiritual and mystical dimensions of psychedelic healing, and the fast-moving legislative reforms that are shaping future facilitators’ next steps.The policy landscape is swiftly changing, as we see in Oregon and Colorado. We’ve heard from several of our applicants that they want to be ready when the policy environment shifts to expand access to these therapies, and that they want to have a professional network of like-minded colleagues to prepare for these eventualities. That’s what our program is designed to do,” says Dr. Trujillo.
The psychedelic facilitation curriculum was developed with program staff Director Moana Meadow, MDiv, an interfaith chaplain specializing in spiritual care, and Eve Ekman, PhD, a researcher specializing in contemplative science. The core team team now includes program coordinator Kristina Hunter, a spiritual counselor and author specializing in expanded states of consciousness; Susana Bustos, PhD, a psychologist specializing in ancestral entheogenic traditions; Mary Sanders, an LCSW specializing in justice, equity, diversity and inclusion; Joseph Zamaria, PhD, a psychologist specializing in psychotherapeutic methods; and Kylea Taylor, LMFT, who specializes in ethics. Sylvestre Quevedo, MD, who specializes in clinical science and Indigenous knowledge traditions, is the latest expert to join the team.
The BCSP Certificate was approved as a Psilocybin Facilitator Training Program through the Oregon Health Authority in 2022 and at least two 2023 cohort members plan to practice in that state, where therapeutic facilitation with psilocybin is now legally regulated. Legislation in Colorado may soon make similar psychedelic services available in that state as well.
The Certificate Program is unique in a burgeoning training field. Meadow says: “Working to create a psychedelic facilitation training program that is ethical, equitable and inclusive, that honors all sources of psychedelic knowledge, that does not shy away from questions of body, soul and community, and that seeks to repair historical and current harms — this is our project.”
To ensure program participants had the opportunity to deepen their learning about the ancestral healing practices behind psilocybin and other traditional medicines, the team piloted an optional international education excursion to Oaxaca, Mexico, where Indigenous healers carry generations of experience working with sacred medicines. Thirteen representatives of the Certificate Program spent two weeks in a multicultural exchange, including talks with local anthropologists, artists, Mazatec community elders, and a service project to plant trees on one sacred mountain, Chikon N’indo.
Martha Serpas, a chaplain from Oregon who also identifies as LGBTQIA+, described the trip as “an unparalleled travel seminar. We talked to healers in their own homes, learned the dedication required in facilitation, the generosity, the boundaries necessary to provide a healing space and maintain one’s equilibrium and family commitments.”
Core to the program’s approach is a commitment to diversity in the staff and student body as well as the perspectives included in the curriculum itself. Thanks to the generous support of its funders, dedicated outreach and significant financial support have been provided to BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ students, as well as immigrants and those with disabilities. The first cohort of graduates are ready to serve their communities, and a new, equally diverse cohort of 27 professionals will begin their training in September of 2023.
Research and leadership
The Certificate Program serves as a laboratory school where the latest knowledge of best practices in adult learning and psychedelic-assisted therapy are tested in a continuous cycle of inquiry, and where student and instructor feedback help inform the program to refine its curricular and instructional model.
Dr. Trujillo is conducting both an evaluation of the program’s outcomes, as well as a long-term ethnographic study of the sociocultural and political dynamics that ensue when building a professionally diverse, demographically inclusive program for a range of experts. With the help of graduate student researchers Prince Estanislao and Marlena Robbins, both lines of research will provide key lessons for scholars, practitioners and policymakers in the field of psychedelic facilitation, including lessons for best practices for other professional preparation programs.The American Psychedelic Practitioners Association (APPA) recently co-published “Professional Practice Guidelines for Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy Practitioners,” which are intended to establish provisional benchmarks for standards in psychedelic facilitation. The APPA states it is a “living document that will be updated as the field’s understanding of best practices evolves.” Accordingly, Trujillo has designed her research and collaboration to contribute to that evolution.
To encourage collaboration within the field, the BCSP Certificate Program team hosted a Training Leadership Summit for more than twenty representatives of national and international psychedelic professional preparation programs, at the close of the MAPS 2023 Psychedelic Science Conference. The Summit followed a pre-conference presentation by BCSP Staff Program Director Moana Meadow, who offered an all-day workshop on psychedelic care for religious professionals in collaboration with faculty from Naropa and Emory University and Indigenous leaders Belinda Eriacho and Dr. Joe Tafur. Mary Sanders, BCSP Certificate Program’s justice, equity, diversity and inclusion specialist, co-hosted a standing room-only BIPOC storytelling event during the conference as well.
At the BCSP Training Leadership Summit, attendees came together to share knowledge, identify pressing challenges and develop directions for ongoing collaboration. Collaboratively setting professional standards for psychedelic facilitation, balancing pressures to scale program size with program quality, designing programs that foster more equitable access to training and psychedelic-assisted therapy and sharing limited resources were among the key issues discussed at the summit.
Following the summit, training program leaders were eager for more collaboration. The BCSP is ready to foster partnerships that help elevate professional standards for the field and contribute to more equity-oriented training.
For the 2023 cohort, what’s next?
For Mai Shimada, a physician who is Japanese and who currently offers ketamine therapy in a Bay Area clinic, the program broadened her understanding of psychedelic therapy in its historical context. “The skills I’ve developed through the program will serve as a valuable asset, in my current role, but also in the future,” added Shimada, who recently accepted a position as the study physician for a Beckley Foundation trial involving 5-MeO-DMT.
Martin Epson, a psychiatrist and African-American, joined the Center’s program to “explore the deeper connections between consciousness and modern neuroscience in a manner that is informed by ancient healing practice.” He is already applying his learnings from the course by “exploring people’s experiences of consciousness in their everyday lives.” Epson believes greater awareness of these processes might help in the clinical treatment of mental illness.
Reflecting on the future of psychedelic facilitation and education, Dr. Trujillo says: “I hope that more university schools of education are willing to take up the charge to build a field of psychedelic facilitation that frames this learning as comprehensive professional preparation, not simple technical training.” She adds, “This work requires immense professional judgment, and the BCSP offers a model for how to develop that judgment in deep, comprehensive ways. Research universities are excellently positioned to bridge theory and practice in this field.”
Looking forward, Dr. Trujillo aims “to build scholar and practitioner communities that take up less common questions about not just immediate, easily measurable outcomes or the least expensive ways to train psychedelic care providers, but that instead prioritize efforts to build the highest quality services, especially for our most marginalized communities. Those goals for collectives, not just individuals, may make the difference between psychedelic facilitation training that is just another fad, or a genuine shift in the ways we prepare care providers for the healing our individuals and communities need.”