In 2021, Michael Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s (and grandson of the soap company’s namesake) was feeling depressed. His company had recently shut down its German distribution center, leading to a handful of layoffs. The company had offered those employees a one-year severance package, but still Bronner felt like he had failed them. “I was super depressed and wasn’t sleeping,” he tells Fast Company. “I tried upping my dose of antidepressants and wasn’t really getting any relief.”
And so Bronner turned to ketamine.
Ketamine, an anesthetic with a dissociative effect, is being used as a treatment for treatment-resistant depression. Research shows that the drug can provide a reprieve from some of the most pernicious forms of depression. Though ketamine is not approved for use in depression, doctors can prescribe it off-label. Like many in the tech industry, Dr. Bronner’s has been bullish on the use of psychedelic drugs for mental health indications, such as post traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved more classic psychedelics for medical use. In the meantime, newfangled psychedelic clinics are using ketamine.
When Bronner sought out ketamine therapy, there were limited options. He ended up choosing a clinic owned by a paramedic and supported by two emergency medical physicians. Bronner did an initial round of five sessions. He was so enamored with the drug’s benefits that he added ketamine therapy to Bronner’s list of employee benefits. He has subsequently done another two sessions this year, accompanied by a therapist.
Employees get access to both ketamine and an accompanying therapist, who assists them during the experience. So far, 22 of the company’s 300 employees have tried it. The company has long supported decriminalizing drugs, but in 2017, it became an advocate for psychedelics. That year, it committed $5 million to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, an organization running clinical trials on MDMA and psilocybin in pursuit of eventual FDA approval for post traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. It has since increased that amount to $10 million over ten years.
Bronner spoke with Fast Company about his experience with psychedelics, and why he opened it up to employees. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Had you tried psychedelics before ketamine?
I have. In college, I did LSD and mushrooms. I believe the last time I did mushrooms was at a Cure concert in like 2009. I’ve had some great experiences, and not so great.
Very different drugs from ketamine. How did you come to try psychedelic therapy?
I started taking antidepressants in 2008, and it was like wearing glasses for the very first time. When I put those glasses on I was like, oh my gosh, this is what it’s like to have perfect vision. I can see that mountain way over there. I can see that tree way over there. And it was kind of the same thing when the antidepressants kicked in. I realized that even when I was fine, I had like this baseline anxiety that I only noticed when it went away.
So what ended up happening over the course of the pandemic—I mean, things were stressful, but you know, I was fine—and then we had to make a difficult decision to shut down our German operations. We didn’t completely shut it down, but we had to change it and get rid of distribution. Because of COVID, we were just losing too much money. It wasn’t viable anymore.
But in doing that, it triggered me; and it was just like, oh my gosh, I failed all these people. We treated them really well and gave them a year severance, but it sent me into an episode where I wasn’t sleeping. My mind would just kind of cycle through all these things; I was super depressed. For like a month and a half, I tried upping my dose of antidepressants and wasn’t really getting any relief.
What was your experience like in ketamine therapy?
When I went to the ketamine clinic, I meet Christie, who has been a paramedic for 35 years and is super smart and knowledgeable about everything that goes on in the human body from a medical perspective. But she’s also extremely humanistic and says things to me, like, ‘It’s scientifically proven that you need 10 hugs a day,’ and I’m like, okay, that sounds good!
At the first session, as I’m getting the injection—it’s an IV drip that’s going in me, and I haven’t started feeling it—she says, here are your pre-flight instructions: Whatever’s in your way, you need to go through it. So if it’s a river, dive through it; if it’s a cave, go into it. If it’s a mountain, go over it.
So, that first session I’m expecting to be shown whatever things for my childhood that I need to get through. And instead, it was like I was getting a massage for the soul. I was wrapped up in this warm hug, and I could finally see permission to sleep. It was really weird. The workaholic in me felt bad, and like I was getting a spa treatment and not an intense psychiatric health session. But over the course of five treatments, it gave me a reset. It stopped that cycling and gave me a little bit of baseline. I was able to use talk therapy to understand what my realities were and what distortions I was foisting on myself. I don’t want to say it’s a miracle cure because you have to do the work; even now, I still have to do the work.
What does doing the work look like?
I’ve continued with talk therapy, and I’ve actually done another two [ketamine] sessions.
Why open this up to your employees?
I wouldn’t want to be seen as like, ‘I’m the president of the company; this worked for me, so I think it’ll work for everyone else.’ I just wanted to provide them the same opportunities I had. I know it’s a cliché to treat employees like family for some companies, but for us, I mean, we really go out of our way to find out what the pain points are that people are feeling and where can we make their lives better. During the pandemic, there’s so many things; obviously, childcare was one of the most important things facing everyone, and appreciation and pay for the people who still had to come into work, even though some could stay home. So we’ve given employees who had to come in an extra $2.50 an hour for wage employees; so, a hundred dollars a week. Psychedelic therapy is kind of the next logical step. And we unveiled it at our holiday party.
This isn’t a common health benefit so how did you set it up internally?
It’s not exactly insurance, right. Enthea [a benefit-plan administrator] is doing all the accrediting, and managing the program. They have all the medical professionals, and they make sure that every clinic on the program is properly vetted. But there’s not any kind of savings that we get, like an insurance provider would provide.
Why have you been so vocal about psychedelic medicine and your personal experience with depression and anxiety?
I am president of a company with no shareholders, and there’s no need for me to self-edit things that are absolutely true. I hopefully can help other people just destigmatizing these kinds of things. That’s where I am in life.
Update 3/25/2022: This article has been updated to reflect additional funding Dr. Bronner’s committed to MAPS.