Organizational ethics within psychedelic programs

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Ethical Tension
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After having recovered from his own personal traumas through a blend of counseling and psychedelic-guided experiences, Scott, 26-year old Indian-American male and a recent graduate of a social work program, decides to help support other people’s healing and signs up for a psychedelics training program so he can learn to be a psychedelic guide. 

Scott is looking forward to learning to support others. However, during one of the program events, he overhears one of the program’s oldest teachers telling a group of students how to convince reluctant clients to try psilocybin – even when they are resistant. “If a guide is too honest with their clients about all the negative things that might happen, you could scare them away. Chances are, they will be fine. Think about all the broken aspects of our world right now; we need systemic change, and to get there, people just need to try psychedelics to face their fears. They’ll most likely thank you later, anyhow…”

Scott is shocked and feels let down but doesn’t know what to do.

Ethical Themes: organizational ethics; respect for clients; informed consent; power dynamics; perceived best interests of society vs. client autonomy

Specific Tension: How can a student within a psychedelics program seek ethical guidance when they witness an event that seems counter to the organization’s stated ethical values?

  1. How can psychedelics training organizations create organizational layers to offer multiple levels of ethics and accountability?
  2. How should training centers balance client autonomy with larger societal goals?
  3. Should training programs place limits on what their instructors might say when their instructors’ views contrast with the goals and values of the organization?

Within any teaching organization, instructors sometimes fail to uphold ethical standards. Psychedelic training organizations should have structures in place which teach all members of the organization the values they embrace – including required staff and teacher training and sections within student education which inform all of their commitment to ethics and integrity.  Psychedelics education should emphasize a firm and unwavering commitment to respect for clients, collaboration, informed consent, and harm reduction.

Psychedelic training organizations should also establish processes to support those who feel they have witnessed actions counter to the organization’s ethical principles, and consider partnering with external ethicists for collaboration and counsel.

In this case, the student should have learned about a reporting mechanism to contact the organization’s leadership, the organization’s ethics committee and/or external consulting ethicists. The responders would have been able to reassure the student that the teacher’s stance falls outside of their ethical expectations, and the entire class would receive follow-up education about the discrepancy and the importance of informed consent and respect for clients. The organization should also be in immediate contact with the teacher and give him a chance to explain, receive education, and revise his teaching under careful supervision. The teacher should be given notice that any additional statements (whether off or on the record) minimizing the importance of consent or client dignity would result in termination.

While our Commentary is limited to the dialogue above, organizational ethics is a complex topic and only beginning to be discussed within psychedelic training. As such, this Commentary touches upon only some of the many important tenets within organizational psychedelic ethics. Our commentary is also limited in its response to the common practice within psychedelics which minimizes the informed consent process and may prioritize the “ends” over the “means;” favoring actions perceived to be beneficial to the global community and attendant to society’s greatest challenges – but at the expense of individual suffering. These topics are worthy of thoughtful dialogue within psychedelic training programs. 

None of the cases or commentary constitute medical or legal advice; see our Disclaimers for more information

Gather Well is currently working with ethics consultants to build a robust organizational ethics framework. Our organizational culture is rooted in humility, education, and respect for all persons. We believe everyone can make mistakes and we also believe everyone can learn and grow. 

At the beginning of all our programs, we share our values and vision with our students and (starting in 2024) will share with our students our new organizational ethics structure. For instance, we will have mechanisms in place for students (and any organizational affiliates) to reach out to ethicists and/or organizational leadership when they become aware of conduct outside the parameters of our ethical guidelines. Our leadership and/or ethicists will evaluate these inquiries and recommend a course action to uphold our commitment to safe, ethical education. 

We are also in the process of establishing 360 degree feedback: teachers evaluate students but students also provide feedback on teachers. Each training program presents an opportunity for teachers to receive anonymized summaries of their student’s feedback, along with guidance from the Gather Well administration to facilitate an improvement plan.  The evaluation forms will have a link to our ethics consultation service and provide guidance on when and how our students and teachers can request ethics support.

As Gather Well leadership considers how to establish and operate an infrastructure that is in line with our values we recognize that we are imbedded or nested in series of interconnected cultures and frameworks such as that of the mental health field, that of educational models/expertise/ and discourse, that of the non-profit industrial complex.  We see these systems and infrastructures as being deeping informed and often contributing to the very paradigms of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy that we wish to dedicate our efforts to changing. We also feel related to the social change and social justice movements and to alternative healing movements. Within these movements too there often flows the offspring of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism such as the values of exceptionalism, perfectionism, individualism, “either/or” and “us vs. them” thinking, singular truth, and so on.  We recognize that we as an organization have internalized these values as we are made of people functioning within the dynamics of non-profit infrastructure developed by the very paradigms we hope to see change. People and organizations or institutions are informed by the culture in which they live or are formed. These values flow unconsciously through us even as we actively work to liberate ourselves of this inculturation. Sometimes we act from these unconscious places. Every person does at times and we hold our learning with accountability and with care and encouragement of growth and awareness. We also deeply value and actively engage moving at the speed of trust, collaboration, interconnectedness, contextual and system analysis, trauma-informed operations, questioning and staying curious and humble to the pain and wonders of the change and liberation process.  It is an ongoing process, and often non-linear, so we anticipate trips and stumbles and subsequent, related accountability.  

We strive to develop an organizational ethics structure that is able to meet the demands of a culture that is in flux, within shifting paradigms and perspectives, that creates solid systems of accountability to our values, relates and is responsive to the values of the greater culture(s), and also leaves room for what else might be possible or wants to emerge in the cultures constant birthing of itself, all while prioritizing the well-being and sense of safety of those we are in relationship with as an organization.  This is complex. We know it will take many minds and hearts to bring it about and to continuously improve. At Gather Well we find this effort challenging and also invigorating. It’s just the beginning for us, but we know this will be a meaningful process and hope it may also be a meaningful offering for others.

None of the cases or commentary constitute medical or legal advice; see our Disclaimers for more information