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The Basics of Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy Retreats

What do you know about psychedelic therapy and retreats?

Key points

  • The collective nature of group-based retreats is a key factor in facilitating positive self-transformation and healing.
  • Thinking more clearly about Indigenous frameworks and models of care will add to Western healthcare models.
  • It is important to critically examine access to psychedelic therapies and retreats.

The following is an interview with Jarrett Rose, a sociologist focusing on psychedelic medicines and mental health. His new work explores psilocybin retreats and how governments, health systems, and citizens might think about new psychedelic therapies.

1. What is the nature of your recent work and what does an "average" day look like?

For the last two years, I have been studying group-based psilocybin-assisted therapy retreats. My research subjects are people who suffer chronic forms of mental distress (often as the result of trauma) and have found orthodox mental healthcare inefficacious. I examine retreats and the impact they have on people’s lives using qualitative methods (e.g., ethnography, in-depth interviews) and a variety of theoretical frameworks.

An average day for me consists of writing papers, analyzing data, and reading the extant scientific literature in fields relevant to my research. However, I recently returned from a research trip to Jamaica, where I completed an ethnography of MycoMeditations’ weeklong, group-based, psilocybin-assisted therapy retreat—the same retreat my research subjects attend. That was an atypical week to say the least, but I’m not complaining!

2. What are some of the key lessons or ideas from your research into psychedelic healing retreats?

My research has four components. First, I examine people’s experiences with leaving conventional mental health medicine for psychedelic therapy. I’m interested in the story behind how and why people come to see psychedelic therapy as a possibility, an opportunity, for healing themselves. My understanding is that a combination of emotions—suffering, fear, and hope for a better future—and cultural influence generate a newfound sense of agency situated amidst influential social forces, such as medical science hegemony, stigma, cognitive dissonance, etc. I argue that the current story of psychedelic therapy is one of perseverance.

Second, I investigate the nuances of psychedelic retreats. Retreats are fascinating sociological events. Strangers come together from all over the world not knowing what they might find. By the end, they're laughing together, crying together, sharing their most intimate fears and aspirations, and ultimately serving as partners for each other in the therapeutic process. Retreats are not simply about individuals taking psilocybin; they’re communal experiences. In my recent trip to Jamaica, I was able to finally explore what my research participants have been telling me for over a year: that the collective nature of group-based retreats is a significant factor in facilitating positive self-transformation and healing.

Third, I study the role therapists and facilitators play during retreats. I view retreats as “cognitive subcultures,” where staff—highly trained and empathetic people—use psychotherapeutic techniques to assist guests in several ways: for instance, learning new norms and values and constructing better narratives and self-concepts. Many attendees report that another significant part of the healing process comes from building positive relationships with therapists and guides—what is often called the “therapeutic alliance.”

Fourth, I research the long-term impact that retreats have on guests’ lives. The guests are provided with a novel toolkit that helps them tackle mental distress and reprioritize their lives. This toolkit comes from a confluence of new relationships (with other guests and therapists), a psychedelic consciousness, and new psychotherapeutic skills that guests take with them. My data suggests that group-based psychedelic-assisted therapy in a retreat, while not a magic bullet, can help people suffering treatment-resistant distress learn how to live healthier, more reflexive lives.

3. You recently wrote about decolonization and Western psychedelic consciousness as they relate to Indigenous plant medicine. Can you explain this?

I tend to focus on this topic from two angles: one philosophical, one ethical. The first is tied directly to my research on psilocybin retreats and on orthodox mental health medicine in the West—the biomedical model. This model considers mental distress as a biological phenomenon located “in the brain,” with social and psychological factors seen as secondary considerations at best. In contrast, many Indigenous cultures take a more holistic approach to health and illness, seeing them as social, cultural, environmental, and spiritual. I argue that, as psychedelia continues its rise in the West, thinking more clearly about Indigenous ontological and epistemological frameworks might foster massive reevaluations of Western healthcare models.

Then there is the ethical complement. Despite being the guardians of plant medicine traditions, for too long Indigenous contributions have been misrecognized, underappreciated, hidden completely, or outright exploited by Western peoples. These outstanding problems, unfortunately, also exist alongside other issues pertaining to a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world of psychedelics. I have argued, along with others who are more qualified, that it is imperative we reconsider what an equitable relationship between these traditions might look like—a relationship that began over 500 years ago with colonialism. We have much work to do.

4. Psychedelic medicine and capitalism seem to be moving swiftly forward. What are you watching closely?

The psychedelic market is projected to be $10 billion by 2027. Cultural actors and powerful corporate interests—lawyers, lobbyists, intellectual property rights patents, and so on—are fueling the mainstreaming of psychedelics. Inevitably, this will bring both positive and negative aspects.

My specific interest is in how therapeutic retreats and clinics distinguish themselves from one another in terms of cost, safety, integration practices, the traditions their healing models are immersed in, and the credentials (or lack thereof) of therapists and facilitators. People suffering mental health issues deserve to feel that their wellbeing and safety needs are taken care of, but having nurses, trained guides, and even medical doctors on staff isn’t cheap. Currently, the average weeklong retreat costs between $4,000 and $10,000. This means that the people who need legal, guided psychedelic therapy the most might be the least likely to access it. Adding powerful corporations or monopoly practices to this situation may make matters worse.

Yet there are more hopeful perspectives. For example, prominent voices in the field have suggested that market conditions may enable healthy competition, with the result being decreased prices and increased quality of care and integration methods. There are also public benefit corporations and non-profit organizations, like Usona Institute, that have pushed for equitable practices, open science, and collaborative efforts. As well, the Global Wellness Institute recently launched their Psychedelics & Healing Initiative, which promises to pursue equity, accessibility, and reciprocity to psychedelic therapy through ethical, evidence-based practices.

In the end, powerful corporate interests in the psychedelic space will continue to offer narratives of philanthropy and “conscious capitalism,” but I remain hopeful that the historical lessons of for-profit healthcare models will propel us in a more enlightened and humanitarian direction.