Sara Ouimette Offer Patients Insights Into Drug Experiences

In addition to traditional therapy, the Oakland psychotherapist provides patients a nonjudgmental space to work through their experiences with drugs.


Sara Ouimette calls her approach “unconventional.”

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

When it comes to therapy, everyone prefers something different. Some people like a therapist who doles out tough love. Others respond to a gentler approach. And some prefer someone a little more “unconventional” — Oakland psychotherapist Sara Ouimette’s chosen way of describing herself.

Ouimette practices psychodynamic therapy, the kind that focuses deeply on a patient’s early life and the experiences that still shape them today. What makes her different from other therapists is her openness toward certain drugs. She knows that her patients are using substances like cannabis and psychedelics including MDMA, LSD, ayahuasca, and psilocybin. So why not offer them a professional, nonjudgmental therapeutic setting to work through the often life-changing experiences and insights of those drugs? 

Not all of Ouimette’s patients use those substances, and she’s not advocating their use. But she recognizes that for some, they can be a tool for self-discovery. On her website, Ouimette talks about cannabis’ power to heighten one’s knowledge of one’s internal and external states and how psychedelics can strip away a person’s ego, leaving the person open to new discoveries.

But it’s not enough to simply take a drug. Therapy is essential for helping a patient make sense of it all so he or she can use the new insights in a productive way. That’s where Ouimette’s strengths as a therapist come in. “She is a highly attuned, empathetic, caring, and sensitive woman who really creates a safe environment for people to explore themselves,” said a long-term colleague of Ouimette who provides ongoing consultation for her and preferred to remain anonymous. “I really trust her work.”

Ouimette encourages patients who use marijuana for medical purposes to be open with her about their use, and she can help them manage their use so it’s most effective for them. For few patients, she’ll sometimes practice cannabis-assisted psychotherapy, during which a patient might use marijuana in a session (after several previous sober sessions).

Psychedelics are a little different. Since they’re illegal, she doesn’t use them in sessions. Instead, she practices something called psychedelic integration, focusing on a patient’s experiences with the drug outside of therapy.

If someone has had a bad trip at a musical festival, she can help the patient move past it. If the person had a transformative revelation during an ayahuasca ceremony abroad, for instance, she can help her client make sense of it and apply it to his or her daily life.

For those who plan to take psychedelics, she also might offer harm reduction tips to ensure their safety: don’t do it alone, she warned, and make sure you’ve chosen the right person to guide you. She pointed out while there’s exciting potential with these substances, they’re powerful — and sans regulation.

Ouimette’s interest in the therapeutic use of psychedelics started in college, where she learned about the spiritual ayahuasca ceremonies practiced by indigenous populations in the Amazon. “I had never really heard, at that point in undergrad, soul talked about in reference to mental illness or suffering, and I was struck by that,” she said.

In her graduate program at San Francisco’s California Institute of Integral Studies, she learned about different cultural approaches to mental health, shamanism, and the research around psychedelics at places like Santa Cruz’s Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. “The Western way has been really focused on brain chemistry, or cognitive behavioral therapy,” she said. “There was this depth that was missing for me in more Western, modern approaches to therapy.” 

In recent years, there’s been a surge of renewed interest into the therapeutic properties of psychedelics. In 2016, Johns Hopkins researchers learned that psilocybin — found in so-called “magic mushrooms” —could offer substantial relief to depressed and anxious cancer patients. At MAPS in Santa Cruz, there’s currently a $27 million effort to get the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve MDMA as a treatment for PTSD, based on promising initial results when combined with psychotherapy. (That kind of treatment, where substances are used in a therapy session, is different from what Ouimette offers, and it remains illegal outside of research.) Ouimette volunteers with MAPS to ensure the therapists in those studies adhere to proper protocol.

In May, local author Michael Pollan published a book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, about the new research on psychedelics and their potential in medicine and science. In it, he talks about psychedelic therapists. Soon after the book’s release, Ouimette’s phone started ringing. “I got so many calls by people who are desperate for something different, something more, something that’s going to help them break out of their suffering,” she said. “What that says to me is that maybe we don’t quite have enough right now to treat some of these illnesses like PTSD and really severe depression. Sometimes people just don’t feel like they’re getting better, no matter what they do, and so there’s a desperation for something more and something better.”

When Ouimette started her practice in 2016, she didn’t offer her psychedelic integration services. She was scared, she said, of people’s reactions and the lingering stigma around drugs of all kinds. But she eventually changed her mind. “I felt like it’s too important not to put myself out there for people who really need someone to talk about all these experiences with, because they’re really big; they’re really intense,” she said. “They really needed someone to talk to about what happened, whether it was life changing in a good way, or terrifying.”

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