WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone who has.
Newly released videos that show two B.C. therapists cuddling, spooning, blindfolding and immobilizing a distressed PTSD patient in clinical trials using MDMA have sparked a stir. review of their work and emerging concerns about public safety.
Footage from 2015 shows psychiatrist Dr Donna Dryer and unlicensed therapist Richard Yensen, a married couple who were then sub-investigators for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), during their second experimental session in a clinical trial phase II approved by Health Canada. with patient Meaghan Buisson in Vancouver.
Videos were published last week by new York magazine podcast Cover Story: Power Tripwhich explores the burgeoning field of psychedelic therapy.
Buisson, a Vancouver Island-based hiking guide, told CBC she was unable to watch the videos because even hearing the voices of her former therapists triggered her post-traumatic stress disorder.
But she saw screenshots of the footage and the content was described to her, including intimate physical contact and a scene where Yensen lies on top of her and holds her down as she moans in obvious anguish.
She believes that the public should know what happened during these sessions.
“It’s horrible. It happened in a Health Canada approved safety clinical trial,” she said. “For this to happen in this environment, under far greater scrutiny than the substance will ever be, is extremely troubling.”
The images are released at a time when psychedelic drugs are becoming more common and substances like MDMA — a lab-made party drug often called ecstasy or molly – are hailed as miracle drugs for serious psychiatric disorders.
Buisson thinks the videos should serve as a warning that if these drugs are legalized for use in psychotherapy, there needs to be a strong system in place to keep patients safe while under the influence of potent mind-altering substances.
“I just want people to realize that it’s not against MDMA. It’s not against psychedelics,” she said.
“I’m just saying that if this drug is going to be legalized and medicalized in this way, then there’s a degree of security and fiduciary responsibility and credibility that goes into being part of the medical system – and especially with the vulnerable subjects.”
Therapists ‘significantly deviated’ from protocol
The footage comes from multiple video cameras placed in the treatment room by MAPS to ensure patients were safe and therapists were following the treatment protocol.
But MAPS spokeswoman Betty Aldworth acknowledged last week that staff at the organization didn’t actually view the videos until November 2021, six years after they were filmed.
Aldworth said MAPS is currently conducting a compliance review for the Vancouver test site, reviewing all videos and documentation relating to each participant.
“While the compliance review is ongoing, MAPS has tentatively determined that Yensen and Dryer have deviated significantly from the Manual of MDMA Assisted Therapeutic Treatment repeatedly during the treatment period,” Aldworth wrote.
Watch | Videos of Buisson’s MDMA session with Yensen and Dryer
Health Canada has not yet responded to requests for comment. Yensen and Dryer did not respond to emails or phone calls seeking comment.
Yensen admitted to having sex with Buisson after the clinical trial. In a 2018 lawsuit that has since been settled out of court, she alleged it was a sexual assaultwhile Yensen claimed in his response that Buisson manipulated him and initiated the encounter.
After Buisson first went public in 2019 with sexual assault allegations, MAPS released a statement acknowledging that Yensen had an “inappropriate and unethical” sexual relationship with a study participant and saying it was severing ties with the couple.
The statement also states that MAPS was not previously aware of any “inappropriate interactions” between its therapists and study participants, and that “monitoring of study records throughout the trial and by the suite did not indicate any signs of ethical violation”.
“It’s not therapy”
MDMA is a recreational drug that produces feelings of euphoria and enhances sensation and suggestibility. It’s one of many illicit substances, including ketamine, LSD, and psilocybin mushrooms, that are currently being studied for potential uses in psychotherapy.
Videos of Buisson’s sessions were filmed during Phase II clinical trials, when drugs are evaluated to determine if they are safe and have an effect in humans.
CBC has not viewed the full video of the session, which lasted at least five hours. Corn Cover Story: Power Trip co-hosts Lily Kay Ross and David Nickles reviewed the full tape, along with videos from Buisson’s first MDMA session. Nickles also viewed footage from Buisson’s third experimental session.
Both described the tapes as difficult to watch.
“The number of checks and balances that have failed beyond the therapist’s own decision-making is simply unreal,” said Nickles, editor of psychedelic watchdog publication Psymposia.
Buisson signed up for experimental therapy in a last-ditch effort to treat post-traumatic stress disorder linked to a history of sexual abuse and assault.
She was particularly disturbed to learn of two clips in which she was blindfolded. The clips culminate with Bush thrashing and moaning as Yensen uses his whole body to pin him to the bed and Dryer holds a towel in his mouth.
“As a female victim of sexual assault, I’m really uncomfortable being touched around my head…I made it very clear. I didn’t want blindfolds,” he said. Buisson said.
“Finding out that I was blindfolded, pinned down, gagged – there are no words for it. It’s not therapy.”
This sequence is equally disturbing for Ross, who has completed his doctorate in research on sexual violence.
“It begs the question of how do people persist after such clear cries of distress, to continue inflicting the things that cause that level of distress on someone who is in therapy to deal with trauma related to sexual violence?” said Ross.
Spoon and hugs
Watched in sequence, the clips show increasing physical contact between therapists and their patient.
In the first segment, Buisson tells the couple that she needs to relax, and Yensen asks her, “Do you want to try and maybe lay down and spread your legs?”
Bush immediately clenches her body in response to this, hunching over her knees as she rocks back and forth on the bed. Yensen places her hand on his back, and after a few seconds she uses her elbow to push him away.
In segments filmed later in the session, Yensen and Dryer are shown lying in bed with Buisson, with their arms around her – both separately and together. In one scene, Yensen is shown taking her from behind and readjusting her hips twice to press her groin against her.
“It’s important to understand that the MAPS manual doesn’t actually allow for this type of contact,” Ross noted.
the MAPS manual for MDMA-assisted therapy refers to two types of touch that he considers appropriate during the sessions.
One is “nurturing touch”, which may include holding a patient’s hand or patting their back when agitated. The other is “focused body work”, which the manual defines as providing resistance against which the patient can push.
RCMP recommended criminal charges
Buisson submitted the videos of her sessions to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, where she has had an active complaint against Dryer for more than four years. A college spokeswoman said she could not comment on the investigation.
Yensen is not a licensed psychologist in British Columbia, and because the province does not regulate therapists and counselors, there is no official body that can investigate his actions or discipline him if necessary.
The videos were also reviewed by the Quadra Island RCMP Detachment, where Buisson filed a sexual assault complaint in 2019.
Police recommended criminal charges, but Crown prosecutors refused to approve them, Cpl. Chris Voller confirmed. In British Columbia, the load approval standard requires a “high probability of conviction.”
Dryer is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. UBC Director of Academic Affairs Matthew Ramsey said in an email that the conduct shown in the video was outside of the school’s jurisdiction, and he could not comment because the study was not was not conducted or endorsed by the university.
Buisson received a similar response in 2019 when she asked UBC to investigate Dryer’s role in her treatment, according to emails shared with CBC.
After all of this, Buisson says she feels like she’s been let down by all the systems put in place to protect patients from harm, and that’s why she’s speaking out.
She says she worries about what could happen to future patients if strong checks and balances aren’t in place before substances like MDMA are legalized for therapeutic use.
“There’s nothing I’ve seen in the past four years that gives me reason to believe what happened to me won’t happen again,” she said.