Local therapists using psychedelic drug to help their patients

Matt and Taryn Barnes in a psychotherapy room at Southwest Counselling Services. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

A psychotherapy team in Point Edward is believed to be the first in the area using a psychedelic drug to treat patients not responding to more conventional therapies.

Taryn and Matt Barnes, clinical social workers and co-owners of Southwest Counselling Services, began combining a hallucinogen called ketamine with extended psychotherapy sessions in October. They say the results can be dramatic.

“Ketamine temporarily suspends the brain’s default mode network that creates negative thought patterns and a lot of negative self-talk,” said Taryn Barnes.

“Ketamine also reconnects old networks that are about happiness and good feelings.”

Studies have shown ketamine can trigger regrowth and reconnect neurons, sometimes in hours. Some patients have seen 40% to 70% improvement within weeks of clinically supervised use.

There is no shortage of local patients eager to try it, according to the Barnes.

“We feel it could be very beneficial to those struggling with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” said Taryn Barnes.

Psychedelic drugs such as LSD, MDMA (Ecstasy), and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) were used in psychotherapy before the ‘war on drugs’ effectively shut down their use in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Over the past decade, however, research and clinical trials using psychedelics have resumed in Canada, the U.S. and Israel. Ketamine, also known recreationally as K or Special K, is the first psychedelic in Canada to be legally prescribed and taken under a therapist’s supervision.

In the 1960s, ketamine was used as an anesthetic on animals and to treat injured battlefield soldiers in the Vietnam War. Doctors noticed its powerful effect on depression and suicidal thought and began studying what was dismissed as a party drug.

“We’ve always been interested in the therapeutic properties of psychedelics so we’ve kept up with the research,” said Taryn Barnes.

Southwest Counselling offers numerous kinds of more conventional therapy, but a certain percentage of patients don’t respond, she said.

“We see people with heavy depression, unresolved grief or suicidal thoughts and sometimes one-on-one can only go to a certain point. We see this as another tool to help them.”

Earlier this year, the Barnes trained with Dr. Tatiana Zdyb at the MindSetting Institute in London and became certified to use ketamine in their practice.

Dr. Zdyb is one of the first practitioners in Ontario to open a psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy clinic using the TRIP (Therapeutic Reset of Internal Processes) protocol that she developed.

Part of the training involved using ketamine themselves. Matt Barnes described the “trip” as “immediately feeling really calm, relaxed, with no anxiety.”

Taryn Barnes said ketamine allowed her to be more vulnerable and open up about her thoughts and feelings.

“When working with a therapist, it allows the patient to explore areas of their life that they tend to guard,” she said.

Clinical use of psychedelics involves a preliminary psychotherapy session to determine what a patient wants to focus on, the use of a comfortable bed or chair, a blindfold and soft music for a 2.5-hour session with the drug, and post-session therapy within 48 hours.

So far, ketamine is the only psychedelic legally prescribed in Canada, but the Barnes are optimistic psilocybin will be approved in the next three to five years.

Southwest Counselling Services is believed to be the first in Sarnia-Lambton to offer psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.

It is relatively expensive, Matt Barnes said. One psychedelic session can cost at least $500, but benefit programs often cover it. A medical doctor is required to assess a patient for treatment and prescribe the drug.

“We have our sights set on using psychedelics in a group setting down the road,” said Taryn Barnes.

“There may be people against it or people who feel it’s a party drug, but the more you research it, the more you see how beneficial it can be.”