Clinics Seek to Widen Access to Psychedelic Therapy for BIPOC Communities
Grassroots clinics across the U.S. aim to address the difficulties BIPOC face in accessing quality, psychedelic therapy.
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“I learned growing up that [magic] mushrooms was drugs, and McDonald’s was food,” says Deran Young. Born to a crack-cocaine addicted mother and raised by her grandmother at times when her mother couldn’t, Young undertook a vast journey through 37 countries in the US Armed Forces, and an education in psychology and social work, to make sense of the racial trauma that shaped not just her, but her community as well. Along the way, she learned about the Internal Family Systems therapeutic model, which she credits for helping contextualize residual pain from her childhood. In addition, during three formative stays in Ghana between 2009 and 2011, she observed a community-based approach to mental healing, including group therapy sessions, which she applies to this day in her work as a therapist and president/CEO of Black Therapists Rock.
Her insights regarding psilocybin evolved after a grassroots session she did with her significant other. Prior to this experiment, Young “was pretty programmed and conditioned to believe that you have to stay on the straight and narrow. ‘If you ever even think about going down that path, it’s going to be bad.’ There’s lots of people in my family that are examples of that.” However, far from enticing her towards addiction, her experience unearthed repressed memories of battling pneumonia as a three month old in a Neonatal ICU.
“When I was able to acknowledge it with psychedelics, I could see that I wasn’t alone, that there was something there keeping me alive,” Deran recalls. “Some presence that cared for me and loved me enough to help me survive, and that that presence is always with me. Always.”
Those developing the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy are encouraged that breakthroughs like Deran’s could transform the lives of many individuals with mental disorders brought about by institutionalized bigotry. The challenge is getting it to them. For instance, research indicates that BIPOC are less likely than white people to have access to, or seek out, these services, and to receive quality care.
Grassroots psychedelic clinics aiming to address the difficulties they and other marginalized communities may face in accessing these kinds of therapies are emerging across the country. Offices such as SoundMind Center in Philadelphia, and Sage Institute in Berkeley, California currently provide ketamine-assisted therapeutic services which focus on serving BIPOC, LGBTQ+, neurodiverse and disabled populations, while projects such as Sana Healing Collective in Chicago and Nautilus Sanctuary in New York are announcing their intent to enter this space in the near future.
“I see [the SoundMind Center] as a community space that people can collaborate in,” says SoundMind founder Dr. Hannah McLane, or “Dr. Hannah” to her patients. A combination neuroscientist, physician and psychotherapist, she has poured her life savings into the West Philadelphia office space that opens on August 1st. “It’s about really creating strong connections and having a model that makes other people want to be part of that model more than a corporate model.”
These clinics are united by an ethical mission as political as it is therapeutic. McLane often refers to the 1985 MOVE bombing, in which the Philadelphia Police Department bombed a residential home occupied by a Black liberation group, as an example of the sort of enduring pain she wants SoundMind to address.
Vilmarie Fraguada Narloch, co-founder of Sana Healing, touts her staff’s work in community activism and organization alongside their mental health credentials. Similarly, Genesee Herzberg, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Sage Institute, lists a commitment to social justice, as well as lived backgrounds within the racial and sexual demographics the Institute supports, as important qualifications for her therapists.
According to Herzberg, even in deeply transpersonal moments of ego dissolution, “archetypal symbols and images come through that are particular to [a patient’s] cultural background… it’s a delicate process of helping to hold the value and the meaning of these experiences, even as people enter back into their regular state of consciousness, especially with ketamine, because it’s a shorter-acting experience.”
For now, the currently-open clinics are being financed through a combination of donations and grants, ongoing teacher training seminars, and a sliding scale for patients. McLane emphasizes the online seminars she promotes in part through her 2500-member Psychedelic Therapists club on Clubhouse, as well as more community-oriented educational materials her organization creates, as central to SoundMind’s mission.
In addition, Sage Institute’s sister organization, Sage Integrative Health, has just been designated an MDMA Expanded Access site. These sites will provide MDMA treatment for seriously ill patients who do not otherwise qualify for the stage III clinical trials currently being conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) for MDMA therapy. (SoundMind Center said it will not participate for now, although they have applied. According to McLane, the treatment will cost $20,000, and it won’t be covered by clinical trial finances or insurance.) Herzberg states the MAPS MDMA-assisted therapy protocol will hopefully be integrated into Sage’s upcoming certificate/psychedelic-assisted therapy training course.
Even at this early stage, the work of these clinics hasn’t gone unnoticed. In early June, McLane conducted a presentation on psychedelic-assisted therapies for the Pennsylvania State Office of Advocacy and Reform alongside MAPS’s Rick Doblin, Joseph McCowan and Bessel van der Kolk. Sage Institute was singled out in a Dr. Bronner’s blog post on ethics within the psychedelic industry for their sliding-scale model and willingness to share data with similarly-minded organizations. The Institute will also be collaborating with psychedelic healthcare strategists Forth Road Health on a pilot study to perfect their model in preparation for a potential national rollout, says Herzberg.
Some well-capitalized clinical networks that offer psychedelic-assisted therapy, including Field Trip and Mindbloom, have also expressed an interest in serving marginalized communities. Mindbloom’s medical director, Dr. Leonardo Vando, says, “Our approach is to radically increase access to ketamine therapy by reducing costs for anyone who is a medical fit while simultaneously improving mental healthcare outcomes. Mindbloom works with costs for individual clients who may be facing financial difficulties, no matter their race, sexual orientation, or status.” However, Mindbloom would not provide demographic information about their clientele for this article.
McLane is critical of the venture-backed clinics’ expansion strategies, and believes the slow and steady development of SoundMind’s therapeutic model is a better approach. “I think there will be, unfortunately, some harm caused in rollouts that are too fast. Then it’ll be like a pulling back and a reconsideration of what other people are doing that are thinking more slowly about what these clinics should look like.”
Clinics like Sage and SoundMind target an audience that is generally unfamiliar with psychedelics, or may even think of them negatively. However, none of the clinicians spoken to for this piece have had difficulty finding clients.
McLane notes that “there’s often a high burden of trauma for marginalized communities.” These traumas sometimes stem from proximity to drug abuse, so the introduction of previously stigmatized substances into their healing can scare some potential clients away. As a therapist and psychedelic educator in the Black community, Young advocates for the communal model she was introduced to in Ghana.
Along with cutting costs, Young finds that with the group therapy model, “the healing [in these sessions] is deeper; the healing is more sustainable. Because not only are you giving [your patients] a medicine; you’re giving them people that they can walk this journey with.”
Whether or not the inclusive clinics are ultimately sustainable will depend on several factors, from insurance reimbursement to buy-in from the communities they serve. For McLane, the goal is to develop a successful, innovative model.
“That’s the major benefit of staying independent, because we can create structures that end up leading the way for others,” says McLane. “Rather than franchising out before we know exactly what these things should look like, it’s a collaborative model where people from different backgrounds are coming together and saying, ‘What should this look like?’ And doing it together.”
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