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B.C. psychiatrist resigns licence after patient complains of abuse during psychedelic therapy study

Former psychiatrist Donna Dryer, right, gives a talk about psychedelic therapy alongside husband Richard Yensen in 2019. (David Nickles/YouTube - image credit)
Former psychiatrist Donna Dryer, right, gives a talk about psychedelic therapy alongside husband Richard Yensen in 2019. (David Nickles/YouTube - image credit)

A B.C. psychiatrist has permanently relinquished her medical licence in response to a complaint about her treatment of a PTSD patient taking part in a clinical trial for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, CBC News has learned.

Donna Dryer of Cortes Island irrevocably resigned her registration on Aug. 1 and received a formal reprimand after admitting to unprofessional conduct with the female patient, according to a letter from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. (CPSBC) to the patient.

The disciplinary action has not yet been made public, but the letter says Dryer's unprofessional conduct includes conflict of interest, boundary violations and continuing the therapeutic relationship when Dryer knew her husband and research partner Richard Yensen was having sex with the patient.

The clinical trial's sponsor, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), has characterized Yensen's actions as sexual abuse. The patient filed a sexual assault complaint with police, and in 2022, Quadra Island RCMP confirmed that they recommended unspecified criminal charges, but said Crown prosecutors did not approve them.

Videos taken during the patient's 2015 treatment sessions in the clinical trial show Dryer and Yensen cuddling, spooning, blindfolding and pinning down the clearly distressed woman. At one point, Yensen suggests she "lie down and spread your legs;" at another, he lies on top of her as she moans in anguish.

CBC has agreed not to name the patient because of the sensitive nature of the complaint, but she has asked the Health Professions Review Board to review the college's handling of the case.

The patient said she strongly objects to the wording in the college's reprimand, which states that Yensen "engaged in sexual relations" with her.

"There is no such thing as consent between a patient and a therapist," the patient told CBC in an email.

"Framing sexual assault as a 'sexual relationship' advances victim blame and implies consent in a context where consent is impossible."

Yensen has not denied having sex with the patient but asserts that it was consensual.

Psychiatrist Dr. Donna Dryer and psychotherapist Richard Yensen are a married couple who live on Cortes Island in B.C.
Psychiatrist Dr. Donna Dryer and psychotherapist Richard Yensen are a married couple who live on Cortes Island in B.C.

Former psychiatrist Donna Dryer and psychotherapist Richard Yensen are a married couple who live on Cortes Island in B.C. (HeartoftheShaman.ca)

The patient also questions the college's decision to settle the complaint through a consent agreement with Dryer, and says she has not received an investigation report outlining why the college's inquiry committee resolved the complaint this way.

"They care more about protecting a physician's reputation than they do about protecting a patient from rape," she alleged.

In a written statement, a college spokesperson said a public notice about the disciplinary action is expected to be posted online soon.

The college says officials cannot comment on Yensen's actions because he is not a CPSBC registrant, and cannot comment further on the case now that it is being considered by the Health Professions Board.

Dryer has not responded to requests for comment.

Sex assault lawsuit settled out of court

The complaint against Dryer was originally filed in 2018, and has now taken more than five years to resolve.

The patient has said she enrolled in the trial as a last-ditch effort to treat severe post-traumatic stress disorder caused by previous sexual abuse and assault.

Dryer and Yensen were working as sub-investigators for MAPS in a Health Canada-approved Phase II clinical trial examining the safety of MDMA, a party drug often known as ecstasy or molly, to treat PTSD.

Yensen has admitted to having sex with the patient after the experimental sessions ended but while she was still enrolled in the clinical trial.

In a 2018 lawsuit that has since been settled out of court, she alleged it was sexual assault. Yensen claimed in his response the patient manipulated him and initiated the encounters.

A gloved hand holds three tablets of MDMA, more commonly known as Ecstasy.
A gloved hand holds three tablets of MDMA, more commonly known as Ecstasy.

The 2015 clinical trials were approved by Health Canada and designed to test the safety of MDMA in treating post-traumatic stress disorder. (Ross Land/Getty Images)

Because counselling and psychotherapy are not regulated in B.C., there was no college or regulatory body that could investigate what happened or consider disciplinary action against Yensen.

However, the B.C. Association of Clinical Counsellors' latest standards of practice make it clear that therapists who have sex with their clients are exploiting a power imbalance and committing sexual misconduct. The College of Psychologists of B.C. has similar standards, and explicitly prohibits sex with research participants.

MAPS issued a statement in 2019 calling Dryer and Yensen's behaviour with the patient unethical, announcing it has cut all ties with the couple and had agreed to pay the patient $15,000 for therapy.

After video of the treatment sessions was released publicly in 2022, MAPS announced that it had launched a compliance review covering all of the couple's work in the trial.

The organization has not yet responded to CBC News's request for an update on the status of that review.

Dryer previously worked as a clinical associate professor in the psychiatry department at the University of British Columbia. A UBC spokesperson confirmed Thursday that she is no longer at the university as of April 2022, but said he couldn't comment further because of privacy laws.