That first year, Fireside trained more than 100 volunteers and conducted some 2,550 calls with callers, including Greenberg. Within months of reaching Jasmine, he had quit his job (and psychedelic salary) to focus on work “that adds value to the universe.” Finally he called Fireside again – this time not to ask for help but to offer it. By the time we spoke, he had donated $100,000 and was about to start for free as CTO of the organization.
There’s a pretty obvious point I should make, perhaps one that sometimes gets lost: Though extraordinarily rare, psychedelics can cause serious damage. A family history of mental illness can send someone into a psychotic episode. And the symptoms of a trip may be hiding a simultaneous medical crisis. A 2022 lawsuit found MAPS partially responsible for the death of Baylee Gatlin, who was groomed by Zendo volunteers at a music festival in 2017 and later died of organ failure and heat stroke.
“What this movement does is definitely helpful to a lot of people,” says Charles Nemeroff, co-director of the Center for Psychedelic Research & Therapy at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. But while the “large number of case reports would suggest that these substances are relatively safe,” he adds, we are still in the data collection phase.
For her part, O’Donnell calls the harm reduction approach “incredibly valuable”. She also cautions that a single session with even a highly trained tripsitter won’t necessarily be enough for someone whose past trauma suddenly surfaces, or who otherwise has a deeply distressing experience.
The stakes, Nemeroff notes, are even higher than an individual’s well-being. “What none of us want to happen is that the unregulated use of psychedelics leads to tragedies, which will then result in a backlash,” he says. “It’s been so long since we’ve been able to actually study psychedelics.”
For now, there seems little danger of reversing our course interest in psychedelics. Sara Gael, a harm reduction officer at MAPS, describes a societal turning point behind the current psychedelic renaissance. As waves of dysfunction — economic desperation, climate change, white supremacy — emerged in recent years, people have increasingly looked to these substances to turn the prism on their world.
All this makes me wonder what the real essence of the psychedelic peer support movement is. It is, of course, a movement specific to these substances, rooted in a specific context: a time when drug policies remain persistently retrograde and official support systems have crumbled. But maybe it’s more than that.
Prison, Thorazine, Wavy Gravy, Zendo: Like nodes on an arc, these represent a decades-long, mostly underground evolution in how we understand a very specific kind of psychological distress, but also in how we help each other on a more general level.
Pires told me that the principles behind today’s psychedelic peer support also apply to everyday life – she uses some of those same skills with her kids. To delay. Offer rest. Let feelings arise. Maybe being a good trip-sitting isn’t all that different from being a good partner, a good friend or a good family member. And maybe one day we’ll look back and be struck by this era – not so much by our growing interest in these substances, but by our changing understanding of ourselves in their midst.
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