COVID-19 and Psychedelic Group Work: It’s Still Too Soon

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By Joe Moore & Kyle Buller

An open letter to the Psychedelics Today audience

Dear Psychedelic Community,

We know this past year has been extremely challenging and isolating. Humans are social creatures by nature, and quarantine and social distancing have been hard on all of our psyches and mental health. But as a community, we have to get real: if we really want what’s best for the collective whole of humanity, the truth is that it’s still not safe to meet up in big groups to do psychedelic work or ceremonies.  

We’ve been talking about it a lot on the podcast, especially on Solidarity Fridays, so here is a reminder in print: COVID-19 is real, psychedelics and spirituality won’t make you exempt from catching and spreading it, and therefore, it’s still too dangerous to be doing group psychedelic work.

Often, when people justify disregarding masks or social distancing measures, their line of reasoning is that they’re not a senior citizen or immunocompromised, and so the current safety precautions don’t apply to them. But this is not a zero-sum, “die or survive” game, and it’s not just about you and your healing; it’s about the people around you–employees at your local grocery store, your bus or taxi driver, the nurses, doctors, and teachers in your community–people you don’t know and don’t think about, who still might be harmed by your actions. 

And COVID-19 is not temporary. There are psychedelic community members with vagus nerve damage, permanent vocal cord damage from severe coughing, lung issues, and other serious long-term conditions. We know plenty of people in their 30s and 40s who survived COVID-19 and thought everything was fine, but their post-virus quality of life has since been severely lowered. We know folks who are still sick, struggling with chronic pain, brain fog, and low energy for over a year, who have therefore been unable to work and have become dependent on family members to support them as their recovery extends past the 13, 14, and 15-month marks.

Beyond our immediate community, a recent study published in The Lancet journal of psychiatry found that a significant portion of COVID-19 survivors were diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition within 6 months of contracting COVID, many for the first time. And remember- we’re still seeing COVID variants pop up, so while many feel we’re making our way out of this dark period, we may still have a long way to go. 

And it sucks. We understand people are struggling right now. Kyle sees it every day in his therapy and coaching practice, and we all feel it. Being in isolation and lacking human connection is extremely hard, unnatural, and affecting us all. The need for healing and contact is immense and only getting bigger, and we absolutely empathize with you all. We understand that it goes against our individualistic cultural conditioning, but this is a social responsibility that is beyond individual healing or personal politics, and we have to think communally. When the community is sick, the individual is sick. And when the individual is sick, the community is sick. 

When we’ve posted about this on social media, we’ve had folks bring up suicide statistics from 2020, using the high number as an argument for encouraging much-needed psychedelic healing work. Everyone on our team has lost someone to suicide and we know how difficult that is, and also how easy it is to think that perhaps an ayahuasca or mushroom ceremony could have saved our loved ones from their afflictions. So it feels insensitive to compare numbers of deaths against each other, but since that’s something that gets brought up a lot, look into it: while the 2020 stats aren’t final and don’t take overdoses into account, the numbers are actually very similar to 2019, with the number of deaths directly attributed to COVID-19 being drastically higher. It’s uncomfortable to think about, but the numbers speak for themselves. This is beyond our emotional ties to the issue; this is for the sake of the whole community of humanity.

The fact of the matter is, psychedelic group work involves a lot of touching, being close together for 6 to 12 hours, and being in close proximity to others’ bodily fluids while we cough, purge, or cry. Cups of water, pipes, snuff tools, and tobacco cigars are often shared. People hold hands, hug, and practice bodywork with each other. These are all optimal opportunities for viruses to spread. Plus, when you are under the influence of a psychedelic medicine, the realities of social distancing and spreading germs won’t exactly be in the forefront of your mind and can easily be cast aside as “silly human problems.” And while that belief may feel freeing, it won’t protect you from catching or spreading disease.

Are there safe options for participating in psychedelic healing work? At the moment, we think the safest option for those looking for mental health relief with psychedelics is ketamine-assisted psychotherapy and infusions. Unlike underground group work or retreats abroad, ketamine clinics and practitioners are regulated by organizations like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) in the US, meaning they have to follow governmental guidelines for safe and sterile working environments. Also, ketamine infusions, injections, lozenges, and nasal sprays are not typically done in groups, and if they are, they also follow social distancing protocols, as outlined in our recent piece on the topic

We understand that for many, treatment options like ketamine-assisted psychotherapy may not be accessible or appropriate, and some people will still participate in group work anyway. To those people, we encourage everyone to do everything as safely as possible by only engaging in small ceremonies that are following strict safety and social distancing protocols and have contact tracing in place. If the work can be done outside, do it there. And if you’re traveling, please quarantine in consideration of the communities you’re traveling between. But don’t forget- there are lots of virtual psychedelic community offerings to keep us all engaged too. And think about the other work you can do, from meditation, breathwork, and journaling, to creating art or just going for a walk in the woods. Not all healing comes from psychedelics and group work. 

As more people get vaccinated and the world begins to reopen, we are all feeling the excitement to move towards the sense of normalcy we all miss so much. But this is a slow process, and we encourage everyone to continue to move slowly, stay cautious, and continue engaging in safe practices and social distancing measures until we get there. 

We know that this is not what a lot of the psychedelic community wants to hear, but regardless of how unpopular putting this out might make us, we feel it’s a necessary reminder that we all have a shared responsibility to keep our communities safe.  

Thanks for your support,

Joe, Kyle, & the rest of the Psychedelics Today team