Published on
December 22, 2020

Spencer Hawkswell | CEO of TheraPsil

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Spencer Hawkswell
Chief Executive Officer

Spencer Hawkswell is the chief executive officer at TheraPsil, a coalition of healthcare professionals, patients and advocates dedicated to fighting for the rights of Canadians facing end-of-life or illness-related distress to have legal access to therapeutic psychedelics.

Spencer was first introduced to healing psychological trauma with altered states of consciousness and therapeutic psychedelics from reading the work of Terrence McKenna, Rick Strassman, and Carl Jung and believes that these methods need to be treated seriously by governments and institutions. Spencer believes that responsible drug policy requires effective organization and leadership and is dedicated to bringing together the experts and advocates, to facilitate change that results in increased access to compassionate care, harm reduction, and treatment options for those in need. Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy is a reasonable treatment option for palliative patients in end-of-life distress and is where we need to begin

What made you personally want to get involved in this field of research?

Research is an essential part of the development of any new medical technology. Psilocybin assisted psychotherapy is one of those technologies. TheraPsil hasn’t launched any research studies yet, instead we are first focused on establishing compassionate access to psilocybin.

However with that said, we are about to launch a research initiative to ensure that we are recording observations of treatments that might better inform future research. 

I got personally interested in psychedelics for quite some time ago when I was introduced to Terrance McKenna’s “Food of the Gods”, and reading Jung, which really made me reflect on how altered states of consciousness, the ego and a psychedelics journey might help people find meaning and purpose in their lives. I've also had my own personal experiences with non-ordinary states of consciousness. 

Prior to working with TheraPsil I was also very intrigued by the research coming out of places like UCLA, NYU and Johns Hopkins, by brilliant researchers such as Charles Grob, Anthony Bossis, Bill Richards and Roland Griffiths, just to name a few. Through reading some of the research it became very clear to me that although we have some good tools that can help folks with their mental health, such as traditional psychotherapy and SSRI’s, for example, there is another option which has been suppressed over the past 50 years - psychedelic assisted psychotherapy. 

Can you share what made you want to be a part of TheraPsil and what you are focused on building?‍

Absolutely. I met Dr. Bruce Tobin, TheraPsil’s founder, in Victoria after a year of traveling Asia and soul searching. Immediately I connected with his vision and mission and knew that I could help him actualize it. I believe that psychedelic medicine should be made available to everyone in medical need and I worked with Dr. Tobin to form TheraPsil as a non-profit where we can put patients first, in 2019.  

We believe that Canadians should have the liberty to choose what works for them, especially when we are talking about medicines from the earth that have been used for thousands of years, and only within the past few decades laws have been enforced to stop people from accessing them.

I am passionate about facilitating legal access to these medicines, and have a vision to work with Health Canada and the Office of Controlled Substances to change laws and policies and eventually, hopefully, create a Nation-wide psilocybin therapy program. 

From your perspective, how do you see the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and what kind of impact could that have on healthcare?

Psychedelic medicines are tools, and when they are combined with psychotherapy, facilitated by a trained guide and integrated properly, they can have a profound effect on an individuals quality of life, mental health and overall sense of meaning and purpose. 

The tools we have for mental health right now just aren't working for a considerable amount of people, and we need other options. We are seeing folks take pharmaceuticals for decades on end, or spending thousands of dollars on psychotherapy to treat symptoms that keep recurring. 

I truly believe however that when psychedelics are used properly and responsibly with a trained therapist who can help one integrate, people can find the healing they are looking for. Healing that usually manifests itself in a new found purpose or realization of who they are. 

I am not saying that I think psychedelics should replace all current treatment options, but that individuals should have the option to try psychedelic therapy and that it should be just as normalized as a doctor prescribing SSRIs, for example.  

For a long time, medicine has neglected the role of spirituality and life purpose. These topics are too often avoided and even many medical professionals may struggle with them too, Psilocybin offers a potential solution. 

You are paving the way for Psilocybin Therapy in Canada and the world, do you think the recent section 56 exemption, allowing non-palliative treatment of depression using psilocybin,  will set a precedent for future studies and treatments?

Mona’s exemption is a clear indication that the government is ready to expand and help Canadians regardless of if they are dying or not, which just enshrines our Section 7 right.  

I think that Health Canada will continue to navigate psychedelic access carefully to ensure safety and efficacy of a future psilocybin therapy program, but we are clearly moving in the right direction.

To date 14 individuals have been granted section 56 exemptions for psilocybin, and a recent poll we commissioned indicated that 56% of Canadians approve of legalizing psilocybin for treatment resistant depression.

Canada is ready and seemingly so is the government, so the answer is not “if” but “when”. Although we do not know if Health Canada will continue to approve non-palliative exemptions, we strongly believe that in doing so for Mona, they have set a precedent for other Canadians. 

You are on the front lines of the conversations about psychedelic medicines. What do you think fundamentally needs to change in order for there to be broader medical accessibility?

Training for healthcare professionals in psilocybin therapy. Plain and simple. 

Canada has thousands of amazing therapists and counsellors across the country, but very very few of them are trained in psilocybin assisted psychotherapy. Psychedelic assisted psychotherapy requires a very special set of skills, and proper training can and should take time. So, if Canada wants to continue to be a world-leader in this space, we need to begin training healthcare professionals about the merits and limitations of psilocybin therapy and how to facilitate it for their patients, now.

The good news is we are on our way to do this! In early December, Minister Hajdu granted 17 healthcare professionals exemptions so that they can now possess and use psilocybin as part of their training in psilocybin therapy. This is a HUGE milestone as it will now allow these healthcare professionals to experience this non-ordinary state of consciousness first hand, and become intimately familiar with this therapy method, before administering it to patients. This personal experience, coupled with traditional learning methods such as lectures, readings, and case studies, will prepare healthcare professionals to provide safe and effective psilocybin therapy for their patients.

We plan to roll out our training program in 2021 and encourage anyone who is interested in receiving updates about this launch to sign up on our website

What can people expect to see from TheraPsil in the near future? 

Folks can expect to see a roll out of our training program. Now that we have secured exemptions for several healthcare professionals we can finalize our training program and launch it in 2021. 

In the meantime, we continue to support Canadians in applying for their own section 56 exemptions to treat their end-of-life distress, and connect them with trained therapists in our network who can safely and effectively facilitate their treatment.

You can also expect to see us engage in some research in the near future. We are hoping to roll this out in the New Year and be able to provide data on the safety and efficacy of psilocybin therapy in a community setting, that will hopefully help inform future policy.

What is the most common misconception you hear about end-of-life treatment using Psilocybin?‍

One of the biggest misconceptions we hear from the general public about psilocybin therapy is that you have to take psilocybin multiple times. And while this may be true for some individuals, research, has shown that from a single medicine session, coupled with psychotherapy “Psilocybin produced immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression and led to decreases in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual wellbeing, and increased quality of life." - Ross et al. 2016

So this is not a medicine that you need to take every day like an SSRI. Psilocybin therapy is more of a program and if the therapist is trained in this modality, psilocybin therapy can be incredibly effective in a single medecine session (coupled with pre and post integration sessions).

From your perspective, what needs to happen to educate the masses about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics?

I believe we need to work with institutions, and with the government. I believe the government should be seeing psychedelics, which are controlled substances, as substances akin to Cannabis and I believe that Truadeu himself should take a position similar to that of medical cannabis. That position was that medically legalizing the substance is better than absolute prohibition. It gives the government a mandate to study its effect on patients, allows for safe access, public and professional education, etc… none of this happens with substances we outright prohibit. 

So I think the government should work with organizations and help educate Canadians on the merits and limitations of psilocybin. And that the colleges and healthcare institutions will follow the Government on this if they show this kind of leadership. 

What do you believe is the most important thing for people to understand about the future of psychedelics as medicine?

Although excellent progress has been made in just a few short months there is still a long way to go until psilocybin therapy will be available for all Canadians in medical need. Training a healthcare professional in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy takes time. It will take a large amount of time and resources to backpedal on years of psychedelic prohibition and misconceptions and to educate healthcare professionals and patients about the merits and limitations of this therapy.

A psychedelic therapy program for an end-of-life patient can take a minimum of 25 hours of clinical work - preparatory sessions with a therapist, the medicine session and post integration sessions. So lots of resources will also be needed to ensure that this therapy is accessible by all who need it. Therapy can also be expensive so we need our government to start looking at ways that this treatment option could be covered under our universal health plan.  

How can people support the work you are doing at TheraPsil and get involved in helping build the future of healthcare?

There are two main ways that Canadians can get involved and help further our cause. 

1.) Donate. Our crowdfunding campaign is now up and running and this is the first time we have actively raised funds from the public. As mentioned, we are a very small team and we rely on the donations from generous donors to help us pursue our mission. So every dollar that is donated helps us focus on helping patients and ensuring safe and equitable access for all Canadians in medical need. We have secured a generous donor who will match every dollar up to $250’000 so we need our community's help to maximize this and ensure that we can continue our work in 2021 and beyond. 

2.) Share our posts on social media. Public education is greatly needed and something we actively work on. Share our posts on social media. Share patient’s stories and articles about how psilocybin therapy can help. By amplifying our posts and the voices of patients we can really help break down the stigmas against psilocybin therapy and foster conversations within the community. 

Who else is doing important work within psychedelics you think more people should be aware of? 

I think that all of the organizations who are doing real research, putting promises into action and helping us get a better understanding of psychedelics are all doing important work. 

Some companies and organizations are in it for the long run while others are clearly in it for short term gains. 

Knowing who is doing what is difficult but I certainly see organizations like MAPS, major research institutions like Johns Hopkins, YU, UCLA, and Imperial College all working diligently to help health care professionals serve patients. 

I have a personal admiration for these researchers who are doing this work for the betterment of all of us.