You’re lying on a bed in a dimly–lit room. Music surrounds you, and the air is soft on your skin. You slip a lozenge under your tongue. As it dissolves, you close your eyes, settling in for the experience ahead. Sitting beside you, a therapist offers a reassuring presence. If anxiety sets in, you’re prepared: deep breath in, then out. Slowly you ease into an altered state of consciousness as visions, memories, and visceral sensations wash over you in waves. Your journey begins.
This is not some radical hippie experiment in the vein of a Woodstock or Electric Kool–Aid Acid Test vision of a psychedelic trip. This is ketamine–assisted psychotherapy, a fully legal and evidence–based psychedelic therapeutic practice. It’s a small piece of the budding psychedelic renaissance that’s sweeping the health care and wellness industries—and it’s happening a few blocks away from Penn’s campus at the SoundMind Center.
The SoundMind Center opened in August of 2021 and is the first talk–therapy–based clinic in the Philadelphia area licensed to practice ketamine–assisted psychotherapy. It’s spearheaded by Dr. Hannah McLane, founder of the SoundMind Center, who completed her residency in neurology and occupational and environmental medicine at Penn. Throughout her time working with patients and encountering a spectrum of neurological and mental health concerns, there was one common thread: unresolved trauma.
“As I passed through my medical education, I started seeing trauma everywhere,” she says.
What manifested as physical ailments in the bodies of many Penn neurology patients was actually post–traumatic stress. “The only way to heal [these ailments] is through psychotherapy, or acknowledging it in some way,” she says.
McLane has had a vested interest in plant–based and alternative medicines for neurological and psychological disorders since medical school. But it was hearing about MDMA–assisted therapies at the 2018 Sleeping Octopus Assembly on Psychedelics (SOAP) Conference in Pittsburgh that solidified her interest in psychedelic therapy. Although MDMA isn’t expected to be federally approved for clinical use until 2023, McLane saw potential in opening a clinic that used another psychedelic, ketamine, as a therapeutic aid.
After the War on Drugs shut down much of the scientific inquiry into the use of psychedelics as treatment for mental health conditions in the ‘60s, psychedelics have slowly returned as a focus in medical research. Though the exact mechanisms of how psychedelics treat mental health conditions are unclear, it seems to go something like this: chronic stress in the brain from trauma depletes synapses, or connections within the brain. Ketamine operates on receptors for glutamate, an important neurotransmitter for forming synapses, to restore depleted connections and even create new ones. In a therapeutic setting, the molecular properties of ketamine can act in tandem with cognitive restructuring techniques used in traditional psychotherapy to help patients heal from trauma.
McLane saw a particular need for accessible therapies for trauma among the BIPOC, LGBT, and neurodiverse populations in West Philadelphia and the surrounding community, where access to mental health care is limited and high levels of ingrained trauma are particularly prevalent. And in such a powerhouse health care hub like Philadelphia, with innovative advances in medical research coming out of Penn, Temple, and Jefferson, it seemed like the perfect place to open a clinic.
McLane quickly amassed a pool of local health care workers to help launch her psychedelic clinic project. They purchased the old Penn Family Medicine building at 46th and Spruce, transforming it into a homey space for psychedelic–assisted therapies, research, advocacy, and training projects. They’ve trained more than 100 therapists in psychedelic–assisted therapy. They currently offer ketamine–assisted therapies in person and plan to offer MDMA–assisted psychotherapy in the near future, once it's federally approved. They also offer traditional therapy sessions in hybrid online and in–person formats.
The SoundMind Center and other practices specializing in psychedelic therapies use ketamine “off label,” meaning that though ketamine isn’t officially prescribed as therapy for PTSD or depression, it can be used in therapeutic settings because of the research backing its effectiveness. However, SoundMind isn’t a “ketamine clinic” where the drug is simply administered passively via IV—they work to integrate the molecular action of psychedelics with more traditional talk therapy sessions.
“Some people will have really powerful rebirth experiences or out-of-body experiences or play through memories from their childhood. It really runs the gamut,” says Courtney Hutchison, director of research and staff therapist at SoundMind. Separate from her work at SoundMind, Hutchison is a temp at Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services. Most talk therapy involves reflecting on past experiences to understand behaviors in the present. For people being treated at SoundMind, everything that comes up in the ketamine–assisted session becomes fruitful material for non–ketamine sessions.
“The therapist is there to create a safe holding environment while people are on ketamine, and then afterwards, you integrate what came up and use that as part of therapy,” says Hutchison.
Of course, a mental health clinic that uses controlled substances to treat trauma in a community where drugs have historically been a source of trauma could be a fraught concept. But that tension is something that SoundMind is committed to addressing.
“There is a really big barrier to entry in psychedelics with people of color. The War on Drugs has been a catalyst for that—it can be very difficult for people of color to trust medical doctors, to trust the government in general,” says Aubrey Howard, a breathwork facilitator and the coordinator for BIPOC protocol at SoundMind. Howard’s role at SoundMind is to provide a BIPOC perspective to the clinic while also making sure that its practices are accessible and culturally sensitive—so that intergenerational trauma can be healed rather than perpetuated.
“When we look at the mental, emotional, and physical body as a whole, integrated approach, we're able to really tap into our own innate healing abilities. Everybody has this ability to heal, given the right conditions and the right atmosphere,” says Howard.
McLane started SoundMind with a goal of focusing on psychedelics for marginalized communities and BIPOC trauma while emphasizing indigenous reciprocity in the center’s practices. Leading up to the clinic's opening, McLane utilized Clubhouse to hear the community’s concerns and questions while also offering free education about the use of psychedelics for trauma and decolonizing the psychedelic space.
“To be able to have these conversations and these dialogues with the community is so important. For somebody to be building an organization like this, to engage the community in this way, is really powerful,” says Howard.
Soon, SoundMind will start research in MDMA–assisted treatments. And they’re already advocating for more research funding for psilocybin, another hallucinogenic psychedelic compound known to operate on the brain’s serotonin receptors.
But SoundMind’s work is only a slice of the budding psychedelic medicine movement. Labs at University of the Sciences are working at the molecular level to explore how psychedelic compounds like psilocybin act therapeutically in the brain, in collaboration with Compass Pathways, one of the leading pharmaceutical companies focusing on research with psilocybin, to eventually bring it to market as a psychiatric, therapeutic medicine. Beyond Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins recently opened a psychedelic research center, and other universities are quickly following suit. Psychedelic stocks focused on everything from biotechnology to research and development to pharmacology are the latest trends flourishing on Wall Street, not unlike the boom in cannabis stock. Alternative medicine and psychedelics have become the latest bougie wellness trend à la Goop. The psychedelic renaissance is upon us.
Psychedelics have become popular among millennials and Gen–Z. Research on psychedelics as a mental health treatment has led many young people to experiment with LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelics at home. The sense of freedom from strict quarantine days and an increased need for connection after months of isolation have coalesced in a recreational boom in psychedelics. College students are taking hallucinogens at the highest rate since the 1980s.
But we aren’t just talking about shroom raves and MDMA–fueled ragers. Young people are pushing for psychedelics to be treated as a serious interdisciplinary field that could revolutionize medicine. And they’re right here on campus.
In early 2019, a group of Penn undergraduates and graduate students found each other through a shared interest in psychedelics. Victor Acero, a Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering at Penn, and Rahul Sood (C ’20, W ’20) are two of the founders of the Penn Society for Psychedelic Science (PSPS).
“It's important that there is an organization that is trustworthy, that's for the students, by the students, so that we can help each other become professionals in the [psychedelic] space,” says Rahul. “There's going to be a huge need for this type of work.”
Supported by its core founders, PSPS quickly expanded beyond Penn’s campus. Along with students from other universities, they founded the Intercollegiate Psychedelic Network (IPN) to expand networking opportunities for students interested in psychedelic sciences. By the spring of 2019, IPN had successfully organized the Intercollegiate Psychedelic Summit (IPS) at Penn.
The pandemic took a toll on the momentum of PSPS and IPN, putting a hold on another in–person psychedelic summit. Although PSPS isn’t currently holding events, they’re working to find Penn students who envision future careers in the realm of psychedelic science. “Unlike other student clubs that are so focused on productivity and output, PSPS is about building a community. Right now, we’re focusing on rebuilding and strengthening those connections,” says Victor.
In addition to the potential of psychedelics as an academic pursuit, PSPS wants to retain the curious, experimental, and collaborative aspects of psychedelic science. “Under the veneer of [psychedelics] being an investigation and a science, we can kind of neglect the more adventure-seeking, exploratory aspects,” Rahul says.
Rahul acknowledges that some of the mainstream stereotypes of hippie culture and hallucinogens as club drugs can add to the stigma of psychedelia, but he wants to embrace the tension between the academic and experimental. “There is a dark side to the use of any substances or use of anything that alters consciousness; any reproducible way to alter consciousness can also be a dangerous thing. I see that as a unique challenge for this wave of psychedelics,” he says.
That potential dark side is part of the appeal of psychedelics to younger generations. It’s this high–risk, high–reward promise for transformative mental health experiences that drew Maximilian Damien Chan (C ’24) to seek psychedelics.
For Maximilian, experimentation with ayahuasca, another plant–based hallucinogen, was a turning point in his psychedelic journey. For years, he had struggled with depression and anxiety, weighed down deeply by trauma. He’d tried acid as a way to connect with his trauma, but he hadn’t found a healing experience. Then, this past spring, he travelled to Florida just before his final exams for an ayahuasca retreat.
“For the first time in four years, I knew what genuine happiness was,” he says. “I was lying on the bed, the grass was next to me, and I was smelling, and it was so beautiful … I thought, ‘This is God, this is all this creation, all this magnificence calling.’"
Instead of doing an internship, Maximilian devoted his summer to spiritual healing. “Every [psychedelic] experience is a chance for you to identify a deeper issue, eradicate it, and be happier long term.” He intentionally put himself in pain through Wim Hof ice baths. One night, on a beach in the midst of a trip, he had an epiphany: His purpose in life was to use his experience with psychedelics and study of neuroscience to help heal others.
Now, Maximilian leads weekly guided meditation sessions on High Rise Field: breathwork sessions, Wim Hof ice baths, and other practices aiming to achieve altered states of consciousness. In the spring, he hopes to turn his GroupMe of about 100 people into a formal club. He sees paths to healing beyond his own psychedelic experiences; he aims to build a community at Penn connected by transcendental, spiritual experiences and practices.
McLane underscores that it's important to draw a line between the resurgence in recreational psychedelic interest and the new research on psychedelics in the medical setting. In a world where microdosing is the latest wellness trend, she wants people to remember that self–medicated trips are not the same thing as therapy.
“You can take MDMA and go out dancing and that can be an emotional release, but it's not the same level of healing as a therapeutic experience,” she says. “One of the major risks is that some people think they don't have major mental health issues, they'll take a psychedelic, and then things come up without them having anyone to talk to. There are certain risks with using psychedelics not supervised by someone who has been trained to deal with trauma.”
“What we’re doing at SoundMind happens to be situated in a larger resurgence of Wim Hof, microdosing, and ice baths,” says Hutchison. “It’s awesome that there’s a broader movement, but we have to be careful to distinguish the part that’s above–ground, legal, and very specifically psychotherapeutic.”
It’s also important to consider that recreational, non–therapeutic use of psychedelics is a privilege; many people dipping their toes in the world of psychedelics are unaware that much of the practice is derived from indigenous knowledge. Adopting them into the mainstream wellness industry, if not done correctly, can quickly become colonizing.
“These medicines have such long histories in indigenous cultures and Latin American cultures. Now that we have access to them, we don't want them to follow the same model that has happened with cannabis, where there's a very small group of people that's able to access these medicines,” says SoundMind coordinator Howard.
It’s a resistance to the threat of colonization in the psychedelic sphere that is important to the advocacy work that SoundMind does. Apart from its work in the local community, SoundMind is also pushing for an effective, ethical, and culturally sensitive path toward decriminalization and legislation. It’s projected that by 2023, MDMA will be approved by the FDA for treatment of PTSD. But with legalization comes concerns for how it will be made accessible to marginalized communities who were most negatively impacted by the War on Drugs, particularly communities of color.
In Pennsylvania, relaxing research regulations and pushing for decriminalization offer a sustainable path forward. In November of 2020, Oregon legalized psilocybin in the context of therapy. McLane hopes to see more states follow Oregon’s model.
This push for inclusivity in the psychedelic space comes with its own difficulties. Because ketamine–assisted therapy isn't covered by insurance, SoundMind has to be selective about its patients and navigate sustainable ways to increase access to their treatments. Currently, SoundMind has over 600 people on the waitlist for their ketamine–assisted psychotherapy. “It’s definitely a challenge to figure out what it looks like to be inclusive and accessible in the context of what insurance will pay for and who has had access to mental health care in the past,” says McLane. Due to the risks associated with altered states, the staff also try to prioritize people who have past experience with therapy, and who can continue therapy with another practitioner after treatment from SoundMind. They’ve adopted a sliding scale model where the revenue from people who can afford to pay out–of–pocket helps to subsidize treatment for others who can’t afford SoundMind's therapy themselves. Additionally, SoundMind works on extensive fundraising efforts whose funds are targeted specifically toward sponsoring therapy for low–income and marginalized patients.
But from that challenge of serving the community comes real potential for a future where these therapies are more accessible for those most in need. This begins with a focus on training clinicians in psychedelic–assisted therapies with anti–racist, inclusive practices from the very beginning.
“Because we're focusing on treating marginalized communities, we have this opportunity to have this great testing ground where we're working in partnership with patients. We can ask them, ‘How do we make this super attuned to your needs?’ That’s a place where we can do a lot of research that can have a lot of impact,” says SoundMind therapist Hutchison.
“It does feel concerning, the way [psychedelics] are kind of being posited as a cure to our society,” says Ph.D. candidate Victor. “In a lot of ways, I’m happy that psychedelics are becoming more mainstream. As a scientist, I'm excited, but in terms of the impact that it can have on society, it's just being integrated into a system of harm and damage and oppression.”
It’s young, progressive voices like Victor’s and other members of PSPS and IPN that hope to guide the emerging age of psychedelic medicine as something exciting and hopeful, but also delicate and nuanced. There’s still a long way to go in finding the right balance within the modern moment of the psychedelic renaissance—an interdisciplinary, evidence–based, and culturally–aware approach is the best path forward.
“These medicines have huge potential to be agents of change in America and globally,” says Howard. “But first, we have to think beyond this individualistic framework … We need to meet the demands of America's mental health crisis to allow us to heal from trauma, discrimination, and the violence that's occurring at multiple levels across individuals, family, community and society.”