Addressing the Absence of Trained Psychedelics Psychiatrists

A grant will help create programs for specialized training.

Most psychiatrists know of the great work being done with psychedelics, yet few – if any – actually use psychedelic therapy in their practice. A new effort is underway to change that and create real, certified specialist psychedelics training for psychiatrists.

According to a survey of 83 psychiatrists in November 2021, all said they were familiar with one or more psychedelic substance. Most felt that there should be a role for controlled or therapeutic use of psychedelics, but trainees appeared better informed than nontraining grade psychiatrists.

Psychiatrists of all grades did not feel prepared to participate in the delivery of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, according to the survey, citing “need for knowledge,” “openness to change,” and “uncertainty.”

A previous survey of members of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in June 2018, a majority of respondents felt there should be more research on hallucinogens and psychiatric disorder.

But less than one-third of the APA members surveyed felt that hallucinogens were likely to improve outcomes when used with psychotherapy. A substantial minority felt that hallucinogens were unsafe even under medical supervision.

Younger psychiatrists seemed more optimistic, which might reflect greater exposure to recent positive publications about hallucinogens and less awareness of negative past reports.

But with so many Americans suffering from major depression that treatment for it is causing disproportionate health care costs and unemployment, it’s clear that the need for thousands of therapists and psychiatrists trained in using psychedelics is here.

Minding the Gap

That need has just been addressed.

In March 2022, Carey Turnbull, the president of Heffter Research Institute, along with others, created a $1 million grant to be given to researchers at Yale School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and the New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine to develop and pilot a curriculum for training in psychedelic psychiatry.

“The short-term short aim of the program will be to develop modular psychedelic medicine curriculum materials for implementation and distribution,” Turnbull told a panel during the 2022 Wonderland psychedelics conference. “The longer-term aim will be to secure accreditation from Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), thereby allowing for the creation of a medical specialty fellowship in psychedelics.”

The ACGME is an independent, 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization that sets and monitors voluntary professional educational standards for physicians.

The curriculum is being developed by a team of faculty and fellows at Yale, NYU, and Johns Hopkins who bring extensive experience not just in psychedelic science, but also in psychiatry training and the delivery of psychedelic therapies and patients.

Dr. Chris Pittenger, professor of psychiatry at Yale, said that becoming a psychiatrist is a long road, where “you have to cram a lot of information in,” and go through a lot of practical experiences to learn the skills that you need to be to be a good caregiver.

“At this point, in virtually all – if not all – training programs, training in psychedelic medicine isn’t part of that curriculum,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of interest. The trainees are asking for it every day, and so there are starting to be electives and things like that. But in terms of how that integrates into the broader curriculum, that’s an unsolved problem.

“It’s going to require a change in the way we practice psychiatry and expansion of the boundaries of what we consider to be treatment and the way we deliver it, in order to fully integrate these treatments into the broader spectrum of medicine,” Pittenger continued.

He added that they need to create content on psychedelics, both lectures and then ultimately experiential learning. “What exactly does that look like? Well, we’re working on that.”

The ultimate goal of this endeavor, Pittenger said, is to train the specialists. “That’s not every psychiatrist, but those who feel called to specialize and develop the technology necessary,” he said. “This is going to be a team effort. And we’re going to need all sorts of people with different educational backgrounds and levels of training. We need to provide training for all of them.”

He said that they are working toward the content that the psychiatry residents need and mapping out the framework for the long-term goal of the specialty fellowship over the next two years.

Kelly O’Donnell, another professor at the Yale School of Medicine, said during the panel that what they’re looking to do is develop people who have expertise in the practice of psychedelic psychiatry or psychedelic medicine.

“It’s difficult because we have so many uncertainties in terms of the regulatory framework and in terms of what’s going to be reimbursed. It’s hard to know how we are going to teach people for a system that doesn’t quite exist yet.”

Psychedelics do have the potential to really help people, and it’s not just some kind of frivolous, fringe intervention, McDonnell said. “So part of this effort, I think, is to bring a seriousness or gravity to what we’re doing here, and present it to the rest of the medical establishment.”

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.


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