Abbi and Ilana do it. So does the Guy. Gwyneth is all about it. [From popular documentaries such as Fantastic Fungi to terrifying horror films such as Midsommar, pop culture is positively bewitched by psychedelics.
The latest installation in Hollywood’s psychedelics infatuation is the Hulu series Nine Perfect Strangers. Nicole Kidman plays Masha, an intense wellness “guru” who runs a retreat called Tranquillum House. As her guests begin to engage in treatment, they realize that Masha has been dosing them with psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — without their knowledge or consent.
As a therapist with over a decade of experience in the field, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into how psychedelics are utilized within retreat settings today. These places do exist, but Nine Perfect Strangers presents a deranged portrait of what psychedelic wellness retreats look like in reality.
In almost every scene, Masha is a walking ethics violation in a bad wig. She engages in sexual relationships with several members of her staff; she sneaks into her guests’ rooms in the middle of the night; and she neglects to inform them when she begins dosing them with psilocybin, concealed in their colorful morning smoothies.
While the idea of dosing individuals with any substance without consent is an abhorrent ethical violation — not to mention a felony. Still, after finding out, all nine of the guests ultimately decide to continue their course of treatment. As they get used to the idea of engaging in psychedelic-assisted group therapy, one guest refers to Tranquillum as the “Betty Ford clinic in reverse.”
That’s clever, but reductive. Even though using psychedelics to treat mental health issues might seem counterintuitive to those unfamiliar with the emerging practice, it’s revolutionary science for patients who haven’t had success with more traditional treatment. Clinical trials using psilocybin to treat PTSD and depression are underway, and it’s a practice that is likely to enter the mainstream sooner than most might think.
Michael Mithoefer, senior medical director for medical affairs, training, and supervision at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), has been an integral figure in the process to advance research for MDMA-assisted therapy and expresses optimism about its future. He clarifies the timeline, as he sees it: Research into both MDMA (aka: “Molly”) and psilocybin (aka: “shrooms” or “magic mushrooms”), are currently in Phase 3 in the United States, which is the final phase prior to submission for FDA approval. “So if all goes well, by the end of 2023, MDMA could become an approved medicine,” Mithoefer adds.
But because the treatment is new, it’ll be done under the guidance of an actual physician — not a dewy wellness “guide” like Masha. “Giving somebody one of these medicines without their consent runs entirely counter to everything we think is important about these medicines. […] It’s all about respect and collaborative relationships and taking your lead from the participant. You’re not going to have that kind of relationship if you trick somebody,” Mithoefer says.
Janis Phelps, director of the Center for Psychedelic Therapies and Research at the California Institute for Integrative Studies, is also confident that psychedelics are on their way to becoming approved medicines. She says, “We expect their approval over the next several years. MDMA-assisted therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is closest to FDA approval, and psilocybin-assisted therapy for depression is close behind.”
Once the FDA approves them, Phelps believes that, “there will be a flood of people seeking these treatments.” Many mental health medications focus on…