By Kayla Greenstien
From 2016 – 2022, I worked in client-facing community support work, focusing on domestic abuse and sexual assault. Throughout this time, I regularly witnessed how the mental health system struggled to respond to non-physical violence in the form of coercive control — an insidious form of abuse that involves intimidation, threats, and manipulation to restrict the autonomy of another person. On countless occasions, I saw coercive and controlling behavior entirely attributed to mental illness, resulting in missed opportunities and devastating injustices. Outside of work, I also started to notice how little of the content in my psychology coursework discussed domestic abuse. Little (if any) content focused on the psychology of people who engage in abuse and coercive control. Despite more open discourse on domestic abuse, it seemed like the mental health system was still deeply reticent to talk about power and control.
At the same time, a new wave of research on psychedelic and MDMA therapy was underway. In 2021, I signed up for a psychedelic therapist training program, and the next year I started a PhD in Australia, studying the theoretical underpinnings of psychedelic therapies. I saw psychedelic therapy as a “paradigm shift” in mental health care. I wanted to believe psychedelics could get rid of the patriarchy, just like Ben Sessa said it did at raves in the 1980s. (Sessa is now facing medical practitioners’ tribunal in the U.K. for an alleged relationship with a patient.) But as I learned more about the theories and practices accompanying clinical trials of psychedelics and MDMA, I found misogyny, queerphobia, and alt-right New Age spirituality woven throughout. When multiple reports of sexual abuse emerged from underground, ceremonial, and clinical trial settings, I heard the same tropes that are used to discredit women in court: “It was a consensual relationship…She has BPD and manipulated him…This is all about a scorned woman seeking and revenge…”. Slowly, I started to see how historic and contemporary discussions on psychedelic and MDMA research largely ignored theories on power, control, and abusive interpersonal relationships, particularly in couples therapy.