When he completed his MBA in 2013, Joey Redding took the logical step and accepted a position at a startup pharmaceutical company.
As the company’s success and profits increased, Redding became disillusioned with the culture change that came with growth. He transitioned to positions at both for-profit and nonprofit organizations – none of which felt like the perfect fit.
“It was something I could do, but not something I was passionate about,” Redding says. “I saw people who were passionate about their jobs, and I was jealous because I recognized I didn't have that.”
Then in 2020, his grandfather was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. Redding accompanied his grandfather to Chicago where he participated in an experimental drug trial. During that time, clinical social workers at the hospital assisted him through two difficult situations.
“One social worker validated my feelings when I was feeling frustrated about my grandfather’s care. She gave me tools to empower me when talking with his doctors and navigating the system,” he said. “The other social worker worked really hard to help us find the right Hospice care when it was necessary.”
Their compassion and competence impressed Redding and gave him a new perspective for his career goals.
“I was at a place where I could make a career change, and suddenly things just made sense,” Redding says.
He is now in his third year in the master’s of social work program at the University of South Carolina with a clinical placement at Centerspace, a specialty psychiatric center for individuals with treatment-resistant mental health disorders, and Project Rex, a treatment initiative for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and other developmental conditions. Both clinics are at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
At Centerspace, Redding helps run sessions with patients using psychedelic-assisted therapy with ketamine, an anesthetic that can produce psychedelic experiences and hallucinations. It’s a unique placement for an MSW candidate – one that is usually staffed by psychiatry residents.
“It’s extremely innovative and impactful,” he says. “I have to pinch myself because I can't believe the work I get to do.”
Patients are treated with one of two types of ketamine-based treatments: a nasal spray type of ketamine and ketamine given by injection. These treatments often produce a temporary, dream-like state, where a patient may access thoughts, feelings and images from their subconscious. They are combined with psychotherapy to help the patient make breakthroughs in their mental health.
Ketamine is similar to other novel treatments under Federal Drug Administration review and late clinical trial research including MDMA and psilocybin. These therapy-assisted treatments are of clinical, research and public interest because they appear to facilitate long-term improvements in mental health after only a few treatments.
Nearly one in five adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed with depression, according to the CDC, and Redding says he has seen some patients make incredible progress with ketamine-assisted therapy.
“There hasn't been, in my opinion, a fundamental revolution in the treatment of depression since SSRIs (serotonin-specific re-uptake inhibitors) were brought to the market 40 years ago,” Redding says. “This a new modality that could really help a lot of people who have not been able to get help in the past.”
He tempered this with a reminder that research is ongoing for these powerful medicines, adding that psychedelics aren't for everyone. “Psychedelic therapy requires a team approach under the close supervision of a psychiatrist and very often demands difficult work on the part of patients,” he says.
A ketamine session typically begins with a discussion between the therapist and the patient about goals for the session and what they would like to explore. As the drug creates a trance-like state, the patient is encouraged to lie back and wear an eye mask to help focus on their inward journey and block out the external world.
“As the ketamine wears off (generally about 45 minutes), we have a period of relaxation to help guide the patient as they come out of the trance-like state. If they are ready to talk about the experience, we might discuss what they think their subconscious was communicating and how it relates to or helps with the intention of the session,” Redding says.
He emphasized the unique nature of psychedelic-assisted therapy, noting the particular care that must be taken around patient consent and the need for an empathetic, non-directive approach on the part of therapists.
Redding is excited about the potential as psychedelic-assisted therapy and its effectiveness becomes more established.
“I would like to be part of the growth and expansion because, as is the case with many emerging therapies, it will be important to address how to provide for this potentially life-changing treatment access across the socioeconomic spectrum,” he says.
While his work at Centerspace is very different from his work at Project Rex, Redding hopes to combine them into a full-time position after he completes his MSW. At Project Rex, he sees clients for one-on-one therapy and helps teach social and vocational skills. He also assists with the Autism News Network, which shares information about autism while providing group members the opportunity to work as a team and build skills. They plan and conduct interviews, manage logistics, film, edit and share on social media.
Long term, Redding expects psychedelic-assisted therapy to become the focus of his career, where he can draw on both his business and social work experience.
“I think I'd be particularly well suited if I want to start my own practice,” he says. “As psychedelic treatments expand, I can envision retreat centers where people could go both for medical treatment with psychedelics as well as other wraparound services such as art therapy. I'm really inspired.”