Walking into Toronto’s new mental health wellness center, Field Trip, feels more akin to an upscale spa than any doctor’s office, with its modular furniture, ample greenery, moss covered walls, and ambient lighting. All of which are purposefully selected to enhance healing and comfort for their legally prescribed psychedelic psychotherapy patients.
Psychedelic-assisted therapy involves using mind-altering (and legally administered) substances, such as LSD, psilocybin, and ketamine, alongside talk therapy to treat mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. Though it’s a new and fast-changing field, the positive results speak volumes. Public interest in psychedelic experiences has also been steadily climbing over the years.
Hollywood has certainly caught on. Celebrities, from Nick Kroll to Natasha Lyon to A$AP Rocky, recount their epic experiences on psychedelics in the new Netflix docu, Have a Good Trip. More people, than ever before, are seeking help for their mental health. And, prior to COVID, Ayahuasca tourism — a travel trend, which some consider insensitive to traditional indigenous practices — was on the rise, with thousands making the trip to try the hallucinogenic Amazonian brew each year.
While psychedelic therapies appear to be en vogue, Field Trip isn’t interested in being trendy. Their therapies are no marketing gimmick either. Backed by decades of research, their clinics offer effective, evidence-based treatment alternatives for people with anxiety and depression. To understand more about psychedelic therapies and unlock these doors of perception, we spoke with Field Trip cofounder, Ronan Levy.
Wait, how is this legal?
Before we get any further, allow me to do my due diligence and say psychedelic drugs are illegal outside a research or medical setting in Canada. Though the tide might be turning so experts can continue to do important research, it’s early days. Still, positive changes are in the works. States, like Oregon and Washington, recently decriminalized a number of drugs, including MDMA. In Canada, terminally ill patients have been granted access to psilocybin (the active compound in mushrooms) for their end-of-life treatment plan.
In Toronto, Field Trip is able to administer legally-prescribed ketamine, in doses much smaller than its typical anesthetic use. It’s also looking to help change the legal landscape to one day expand their research and treatment plans to include MDMA, psilocybin, and their own manufactured drug, FT-104. Until then, experts recommend leaving the use of psychedelics up to the researchers and patients under medical supervision.
So how does psychedelic therapy work?
At Field Trip Toronto, every patient’s treatment plan is tailored to their needs. A typical session would last around two hours. It begins with a microdose of ketamine, while you relax in a reclining chair, complete with noise-cancelling headphones.
“Each Field Trip Health center has been designed to be warm, bright, and inviting to ensure that, when people arrive for their therapies, they feel safe and comfortable,” explains Ronan. “Each person will also come to their session prepared for the experience, having had access to extensive information, tools, and meditations to prepare with.”
With a comfortable setting, the ketamine quiets our ego in order to make room for a different sense of awareness.
Hang in there — we’re about to get into some science.
As psychoactive drugs, like ketamine, reduce activity in our brain’s ego (default mode network), you can begin to disengage from your routine thought patterns. With this relaxed mind and change of view, you’re better able to open up and address problems in the resulting talk therapy. Even cooler still, neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form new connections and pathways) is increased post-psychedelic experience. Which is why people tend to see such long and lasting change from their sessions.
“As effects [from one of Field Trip’s ketamine-assisted sessions] start to wear off, there’s an opportunity for an exploratory therapy session, which is just an opportunity for the person to talk about the experience. Very often, people are able to revisit past traumas or past memories, or develop an objective perspective on what may be causing their depression or anxiety,” says Ronan. From there, it all depends on the treatment plan. It likely includes follow-up sessions to take advantage of that all-important neural plasticity.
What does psychedelic psychotherapy feel like?
What if I have a bad trip?
Everyone’s experience is different. Field Trip’s website notes that a sense of disconnection is common, as are feelings of intense calm and euphoria. Or, if you’re A$AP Rocky on acid, you might visualize a rainbow coming out a certain . . . ahem . . . appendage.
Though Ronan agrees that it’s difficult to put in words, he offers some insight from patient experiences and his own. “Some people find it very colorful and experiential, and other people feel they are having an out-of-body experience. The closest I can offer, in terms of what the experience is like, is that moment or feeling right before you fall asleep — when your mind starts to wander, and the ego loses grip. At least for me, I find this time to be my most creative.”
At the same time that these experiences can be positive and profound, they can also be overwhelming for some. But, the idea of a “bad trip” might not be the big bad wolf we’ve come to believe.
“The risks around so-called bad trips aren’t zero. But I think it’s more accurate to say there are hard trips and easy trips,” says Ronan. “The hard trips can still be very positive therapeutic experiences, especially with the right therapeutic and professional support around you. They can become bad trips if you don’t have the right support, and are not able to deal with it properly.”
Who should consider psychedelic therapy?
Having the right support and setting is as important as a thorough consultation. Before exploring psychedelic psychotherapy, medical professionals will need to rule out risks, like pregnancy, history of schizophrenia, and other factors.
At Field Trip, treating people with anxiety and depression is at the forefront of their mission. But, there’s a broader view in mind, too.
“Just about everybody can benefit from psychedelic therapy. In the same way that talk therapies have the potential to help just about everybody, psychedelic assisted therapies are really just using psychedelics to enhance the efficacy of conventional talk therapy,” says Ronan. “Anyone who’s dealing with depression or anxiety or adjustment disorder or, you know, just finding life difficult right now, they are probably the people who could benefit most from psychedelic therapies.”
The times are a-changin’
Are we in the wake of a psychedelic renewal? Ronan, among many other experts, would say yes. “I think the psychedelic Renaissance that’s happening right now is the result of a number of different trends converging.”
Better awareness and empathy for mental health issues, greater interest in general wellness, and changing attitudes towards formally stigmatized drugs, like cannabis, have all come together at a time when one in five people will experience depression at some point in their lives. But will psychedelics be the cure-all and end-all to a mental health epidemic? Not exactly.
“It’s important for everyone to understand that psychedelics are not a cure or a treatment in and of themselves. Rather, they are catalysts for the effects of cognitive therapies,” says Ronan. “And to be clear, I do not believe people should run out and dose themselves with LSD. But, if someone is struggling and are looking for ways to improve the quality of their life, then psychedelic therapies — when done in the right context — with the right professional support can be a really meaningful, transformative, positive experiences.”
What to do if you’re psych-curious?
Before getting started, keep in mind that psychedelic therapies will cost you upwards of $4,700. Not exactly a small sum, even with the potential for partial insurance coverage. While financial and legal barriers slowly open up, there are plenty of everyday activities that can achieve a similar effect.
“It doesn’t have to be a psychedelic drug. Breath work, for instance, or meditation can quiet the ego and slow the default mode network in the brain, too,” says Ronan. “Anything that can normally enhance [your] mental and emotional well-being are useful adjuncts to psychedelic therapies. Meditation, exercise, CBD — all of these are powerful tools. Psychedelics just really enhance the effects of these experiences.”
If you are experiencing anxiety or depression and are in need of immediate support, call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 or Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 833-456-4566 (SMS: 741741).
(Story by Contributing Editor, Sarah Dziedzic)