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Misinformation about psychedelic therapy threatens its future

Ever since hallucinogenic drugs started being reconsidered as a potential treatment for mental illness, hype surrounding their integration into modern medicine has been rife. A new paper argues that this excitement could send us back to square one.  

For the last two years, I’ve written extensively about hallucinogenic drugs. Namely their widely recognised potential to treat the 1 in 7 people globally who suffer from mental illness.

During this time, we’ve seen numerous states in the US decriminalise substances once frowned upon by society, medical experts start trialling therapies with MDMA, magic mushrooms, and LSD (among several others), and the psychedelics market projected to reach $10.75bn by 2027.

Now, considering that experts have long-struggled to uncover the roots of conditions such as depression, PTSD, and anxiety – which psychedelic research has done wonders to shine a light on – it’s no surprise that advocates have been unable to suppress their excitement both on and offline.

However, as is often the case with trending topics across social media and in mainstream dialogues, this surge in hype has amounted in a great deal of misinformation that threatens the future integration of hallucinogenic drugs into modern medicine. This is according to a new paper, which argues that fake news born out of anticipation could very well send us back to square one.

‘Psychedelic research currently appears to be trapped in a hype bubble driven largely by media and industry interests,’ explains lead-author and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, David Yaden.

‘We believe that it would benefit the field of psychedelic research if this bubble were to be systematically deflated by researchers and clinicians using good science communication practices.’

Essentially, with it common knowledge that the media and influential industries will never miss an opportunity to capitalise on whatever piques our collective interest, Yaden is warning against the overvaluation of psychedelics in popular perception as we experience their renaissance.

One only needs to think of Newsweek’s September 2021 issue for an example of this, which called psilocybin the biggest advance in treating mental illness since Prozac.

As Yaden argues, this growing tendency to tout hallucinogenic drugs as a miracle cure is creating impediments to the ‘reasonable clinical applications’ we were on the brink of gaining access to.

In idealistically labelling them an overnight solution to a problem that has persisted throughout history, publications and brands alike have significantly hindered progress.

On this note, as it becomes increasingly difficult to know what’s real and genuinely supported by facts these days, Yaden stresses we remain conscious that psychedelics are not a panacea.

This, somewhat surprisingly, is a sentiment echoed by Rosalind Watts, who famously gave a TEDx talk sharing her belief that these compounds would no doubt revolutionise mental health care.

Acknowledging the negative repercussions of such sweeping statements, she recently expressed regret at her initial unbridled fervour, urging us not to get ahead of ourselves as legislation and stigma slowly begin to loosen. Unless we want to wind up with psychedelics completely outlawed yet again, that is.

‘I can’t help but feel as if I unknowingly contributed to a simplistic and potentially dangerous narrative around psychedelics,’ she wrote in a Medium piece published in February.

‘I just reflected on how I myself had got caught up in the black and white of like, “this is wonderful.” Now having been through that trial, I’m much more neutral and agnostic.’

Ultimately, while the immense promise shown by these substances is most certainly grounds for enthusiasm, what’s clear is that we must tread carefully or risk the return of their ostracization.

With this in mind, Yaden deems distancing research from corporate attention and scrapping the notion that encouraging results are nothing more than a financial incentive (the obsessive patenting of psychedelics by Silicon Valley start-ups is at the forefront of this) the sole way forward.

‘The idea is not to squelch research,’ he finishes. ‘The idea is to be in it for the long run in a sustainable, responsible way.’

 

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