Say you took a psychedelic. Not sure what it was, but a friend gave it to you and explained how it was cool.. it was safe.. it would be a lot of fun.
Then all sorts of things began happening that no one explained to you. Some of it was sorta cool.. sorta fun. But during, and afterward, you felt like it would have been good to talk to an understanding human about the experience because, well, maybe something else was happening to you that no one else experienced. Maybe you just wanted to discuss the new, profound understanding of life you just experienced.
It would have been great just to hear another person help you understand your psychedelic journey. A calming, understanding voice on a phone support line. An experienced psychonaut on a crisis line, perhaps.
Now that help is here in the form of the Fireside Project, an organization of doctors, psychiatrists, researchers and counselors with financial support from the Social Good Fund, a California nonprofit corporation. The Fireside Project is a crisis line and peer support line for people going through a psychedelic experience, created to help people minimize the risks and fulfill the potential of their psychedelic experiences.
Joshua White, founder and executive director of the Fireside Project, started having his own psychedelic experiences about 15 years ago. Then about 10 years ago, they became a more foundational part of his life, and his own healing journey, he told Psychedealia.
White transitioned from his chosen study of law to psychology and began volunteering on a mental health support line in San Francisco. He also worked with the Zendo Project, another peer support project, at festivals like Burning Man. “The support line was such an amazing experience, for so many reasons,” he said. “It was really a very therapeutic tool for people from lower-income and under-resourced communities. But I also learned that support lines can be so much broader than just a hotline, or a crisis line. A support line can be there anytime a person just wants connection.”
A survey published in 2016 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology helped illuminate the problem with taking psychedelics—in this case, psilocybin. Most of the 1,900 respondents who took psilocybin were OK. But 2.6 percent reported that they behaved in a physically aggressive or violent manner, and 2.7 percent received medical help. Three cases were associated with onset of enduring psychotic symptoms, and three cases were associated with attempted suicide.
The problems were generally related to the dosage, the survey reported. But even a bad trip could have a good outcome, according to Roland Griffiths, the professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who explained that a difficult experience such as a bad trip could make someone notably stronger or wiser. “We might even come to value what happened,” he said during a Q&A session at Johns Hopkins. “Because developing strength or wisdom through adversity isn’t guaranteed, we might well want capable friends or counselors—even if just as a kind and a sympathetic ear—to be available to help us make constructive use of the experience as part of our personal growth.”
Today it’s a new landscape for trying psychedelics, and more people need friends or counselors for a lot of reasons because we are all in the midst of a mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.
At the same time, the psychedelics industry is exploding, White said. “And so it really struck me that for psychedelics to achieve their full healing potential, their transformational potential, we needed to create something that would give every single person in the world access to free support, peer support during their psychedelic experiences and after their psychedelic experiences.”
That led to the formation of Fireside on April 14, 2021. Since then, project counselors have had about 2,000 conversations over the phone.
Psilocybin is the most common substance that people reach out to discuss, with LSD, ketamine, and other substances following that. “We do consider marijuana to be a psychedelic for purposes of the support line because a powerful marijuana experience can certainly be mind-manifesting and healing and transformational,” White said. “And we have more and more folks reaching out to us to seek support during their cannabis experiences.”
Psychedelics are extremely powerful tools, he said, and they should be treated that way. “There’s preparation that’s required, there’s support needed during the experience. And then the integration process after is vital at so many levels, right? The psychedelic experience can be downright dangerous if you don’t have integration support.
Take DMT as an example, he said. “If you had a high dose DMT experience and blasted yourself to the other side of the universe, and then came back and had no one to talk to about that experience, it can be isolating.
“The reality is that upwards of 90 percent of psychedelic use is always going to occur in a non-clinical setting, whether that’s people doing it at home, in ceremonies, or at shows. We need to put in place a robust infrastructure to make sure that people are educated, and that they have free and confidential support during and after their experience from their peers,” White said. “So we’re really honored to be playing that role. Kind of our motto is that we meet people where they are, and really hold space for someone, whatever it is that they’re going through. It’s truly the most beautiful and sacred experience to hold space for someone having a psychedelic experience. So to be regularly having conversations with people who are having the most spiritually significant experience of their lives is just indescribably beautiful.”