Dr Alex Belser

Somewhere in a secluded corner of the Cybin Inc. campus, Drs. Alex Belser and Bill Brennan sit cloistered within a small, window-lined room. Heads pressed closely together, these two pioneering psychologists are on a mission to change how we think of and implement psychedelic-assisted therapy.

Dr Bill Brennan

Dr. Alex Belser, MPhil, Ph.D., is a psychologist with over two decades of experience in psychedelic research and therapy. Alongside his co-author Dr. Bill Brennan, Ph.D., the pair has developed EMBARK, a comprehensive model designed to address gaps in existing psychedelic therapy approaches. EMBARK aims to provide a structured, holistic framework for facilitating psychedelic experiences and integrating their benefits into long-term personal growth. But beyond that, it does something that some other clinical models have failed to do. It brings together the patient’s mind, body, and spirit to heal from the inside out.

Building the EMBARK Model of Psychedelic Medicine

EMBARK Model of Psychedelic Medicine

Dr. Alex Belser’s extensive background in psychology and psychedelic research has uniquely positioned him to identify and address the shortcomings in early psychedelic therapy models. Based in New York City, Dr. Belser has dedicated much of his career to studying the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. He has been involved in significant research at both NYU and Yale University School of Medicine, contributing to the growing body of evidence supporting the efficacy of these substances in treating various mental health conditions.

“I’m a psychologist in practice in New York City. I have been passionate and in love with psychedelic work and also cautious and thoughtful about it for about 20 years now,” says Dr. Belser. His commitment to both passion and caution in this field underscores the careful balance required in developing effective and ethical psychedelic therapies.

The inception of EMBARK was driven by the need to develop methodologies for trials that have or will treat specific clinical indications. Dr. Belser and Dr. Brennan identified the need for a more comprehensive and structured approach that not only focuses on clinical outcomes but also integrates the spiritual, relational, and physical aspects of psychedelic experiences. Their collaborative effort aims to provide a holistic framework that can be applied consistently across various therapeutic settings.

What is The EMBARK Model of Psychedelic Therapy?

EMBARK is structured around six domains, each addressing a different aspect of the therapeutic process. These domains are encapsulated in the acronym EMBARK:

Existential and Spiritual Experiences:
Existential and Spiritual Experiences icon

This section addresses the profound existential and mystical moments that can occur during psychedelic sessions. It integrates spiritual counseling to help participants process and understand these experiences, providing a framework for making sense of profound insights.

Mindfulness icon

Mindfulness and meditation practices are incorporated throughout the therapeutic process to help participants stay present and grounded. These practices support the therapeutic journey by enhancing awareness and acceptance of the present moment, facilitating deeper self-reflection and healing.

Body Awareness:
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This domain focuses on the physical and somatic aspects of psychedelic experiences, recognizing the importance of the body in healing. It promotes trauma-informed care by addressing and healing physical manifestations of trauma, helping participants reconnect with their bodily sensations in a safe and supportive environment.

Affective and Cognitive Experiences:
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Drs. Belser and Brennan highlight how relationships with oneself, the therapy team, and significant others play a role in the therapy process. This promotes healing through improved relational patterns and communication, helping participants build stronger, more supportive relationships.

Relational Experiences:
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Emphasizing emotional catharsis, the fourth domain utilizes cognitive behavioral techniques to help participants process their feelings and thoughts. It aims to foster a better understanding and management of emotional responses, facilitating cognitive shifts that support long-term mental health improvements.

Keeping Momentum:
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The final domain focuses on creating actionable steps to maintain therapeutic progress, ensuring that the insights gained during sessions are integrated into daily life for sustained personal growth.

EMBARK aims to provide a comprehensive and structured approach to psychedelic therapy, addressing the multifaceted nature of healing and personal growth.

The Four Care Cornerstones of EMBARK

In addition to the above-mentioned domains, EMBARK is built upon four cornerstones of essential care.

Ethically Rigorous Care:
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EMBARK strongly emphasizes ethical practices concerning touch. “Enhanced consent for touch, ensuring ethically rigorous practices” is key. This includes obtaining explicit consent for any physical contact, such as a handhold or a comforting touch, to ensure the participant feels safe and respected throughout their journey.

Culturally Competent Care:
Culturally Competent Care

Recognizing participants’ diverse backgrounds, EMBARK stresses the importance of lifestyle and values competence. This involves being aware of and addressing power asymmetries and blind spots. Dr. Belser notes, “It’s important to have cultural humility and recognize that we don’t know everything. We must be attentive to the cultural context of each participant.” This approach helps to create a more inclusive and respectful therapeutic environment by helping clinicians be more aware of their internal biases.

Trauma-Informed Care:
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EMBARK also integrates trauma-informed care principles. “Recognizing and addressing traumatic experiences during psychedelic sessions is crucial,” says Dr. Belser. By understanding and mitigating the impacts of trauma, therapists can better support participants through their healing process.

Collective Care:
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This cornerstone focuses on the broader social and systemic context in which individuals exist. “Focusing on the participant’s liberation and healing within their broader context, recognizing systemic oppression and supporting their agency,” explains Dr. Belser. This approach ensures that therapy addresses individual symptoms and considers the societal factors contributing to a participant’s overall well-being. Dr. Belser offers deadnaming (when someone uses a transgender person’s former name) of transgender patients as an example where someone may be experiencing systemic oppression or prejudice while seeking care, saying, “It’s something that we often see with trans and queer individuals where their preferred names and pronouns are purposefully not used by clinical staff.”

These cornerstones are integral to the EMBARK model, ensuring that therapy is effective and conducted with the highest standards of ethics, cultural sensitivity, trauma awareness, and collective consideration.

Taking EMBARK to the Masses

Implementing the EMBARK model involves a structured process that guides participants from initial intake to long-term integration of their psychedelic experiences. Dr. Belser explains the steps involved in this comprehensive approach.

EMBARK model with participants

“The journey begins with a detailed intake process,” says Dr. Belser. “We gather comprehensive information about the participant’s background, current mental health status, and goals for therapy. This initial phase sets the foundation for the therapeutic process and helps establish a trusting relationship between the participant and the therapy team.”

Once the intake is complete, preparatory sessions follow, focusing on educating the participant about the upcoming psychedelic experience and setting intentions. “We use motivational interviewing to help participants formalize their goals and objectives,” explains Dr. Belser. “These sessions are crucial for preparing the participant mentally and emotionally, ensuring they enter the psychedelic session with clarity and focus.”

As part of the EMBARK method, during a medicine session, participants receive the psychedelic substance in a controlled and supportive environment. The therapy team remains present throughout, offering guidance and support as needed.

Editor’s Note: The EMBARK model assumes that the therapy team can administer psychedelics, which is currently only possible for approved studies and clinical trials.

Integration is a critical component of the EMBARK model. Following the medicine sessions, participants engage in integration sessions where they process their experiences and begin to incorporate insights into their daily lives. “It’s about translating altered states of consciousness into long-term changes and specific practices,” Dr. Belser emphasizes. These sessions are participant-led, meaning the therapy focuses on the aspects of the experience that the participant finds most significant.

The clinician’s role is to support this process, helping to translate the insights gained during the psychedelic experience into actionable steps for personal growth and healing. “The integration session lets the participant lead, focusing on what was most salient for them during the medicine session,” says Dr. Belser. These sessions allow participants to explore their inner landscapes with trained clinicians’ steady and compassionate presence.

Long-term support is also a key element of the EMBARK model. This involves regular check-ins and additional integration sessions to help the participant feel supported and sustain the positive changes in their life. “We ensure participants have support from good clinicians in their community and make referrals for outside work,” Dr. Belser explains. This ongoing support is crucial for preventing relapse and promoting lasting well-being.

Dr. Belser notes the importance of this structured implementation from intake to long-term support. “The comprehensive approach of EMBARK helps maximize the benefits of psychedelic therapy and fosters meaningful, lasting change,” he says.

However, this new model faces one significant challenge: preparing participants who aren’t spiritual for potential mystical experiences. Dr. Belser explains, “Many people don’t define themselves as spiritual. They may be secular, atheist, agnostic, or have a different relationship with their religion. We propose a different approach, using language that allows openness to each person’s spiritual and religious history. We use terms like ‘the god of your understanding’ and avoid imposing specific ideas about the nature of reality.”

How to Access Free EMBARK Training and Resources

Dr. Belser and his team have developed various training resources for clinicians and participants to support the implementation of the EMBARK model.

EMBARK Training and Resources

“We’ve made the EMBARK training available online for free at EmbarkApproach.com,” says Dr. Belser. “This training includes insights from leaders in the field of psychedelic medicine and depression studies, such as Dr. Andrew Solomon, who wrote The Noonday Demon, and other experts. We’ve had over 4,000 people register for this course, which speaks to the growing interest and need for comprehensive psychedelic therapy training.”

In addition to the online training, Dr. Belser and his co-author have published a book titled “Embark Psychedelic Therapy for Depression: A New Approach for the Whole Person.” This book is available through major resellers and, hopefully soon, through local libraries. “The book is geared towards clinicians, but curious readers may also find it interesting,” Dr. Belser notes.

By offering these resources, Dr. Belser and Dr. Brennan aim to equip clinicians and participants with the knowledge and tools needed to implement EMBARK effectively and ethically, fostering a new era of comprehensive and compassionate psychedelic therapy that looks beyond symptoms and instead sees and treats the whole person from head to soul.

This material is not intended as a replacement or substitute for any legal or medical advice. Always consult a medical professional about your health needs. Psychedelics are widely illegal in the United States, and readers should always be informed about local, state, and federal regulations regarding psychedelics or other drugs.