Rebranding the taboo: Psychedelics as medicine

By Emma Cooley, Associate Director, Strategy, BX

We are in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance, with an entire track at SXSW dedicated to discussing the re-emergence of research and investment into the use of certain psychoactive substances as therapeutics for various mental health conditions.

This is a very hot and controversial topic that sits at the intersection of other healthcare trends, and while excitement fuels innovation in a projected multi-billion-dollar industry, challenges arise as the psychedelic story comes together.  

Last year, the US Surgeon General listed loneliness as the number one threat to health in America. Whether it’s called a friendship recession or isolation epidemic, in the aftermath of COVID-19 we find ourselves in a mental health crisis; with one in five adults currently living with a mental illness. Unfortunately, the “new normal” does not quite feel very normal, unhappiness is no longer reserved for the patient, and we are as a population questioning what it really means to lead a healthy life. Existing treatment options have fallen short, and the space is desperate for a different approach. Among other alternative prescriptions being considered today like music, apps, or social interactions, the investigation into psychedelics as breakthrough therapy aims to address an urgent unmet need by potentially exploring out of the box solutions. 

Rethinking psychedelics is part of the larger evolving narrative around mental health. The term “mental disability,” for example, is now outdated and has been replaced with the preferred “neurodivergence.” It is also a continuation of the desire to more deeply understand the patient experience. Although this is not a new idea – WHO’s founding constitution defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” – the shift towards a more holistic, individualized and empathetic approach to patient care across therapeutic areas has reached personalized psychiatry and is expanding further into a movement to understand the human experience. 

There is a lot of hype for the power of psychedelics to provide insight into the mind and enhance mental wellbeing, but high-speed innovation such as this does not come without obstacles. Following the pending approval of MDMA for PTSD this year, a wave of novelly designed psychedelic-inspired drugs will follow. Psychedelics and their analogs have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about mental health and democratize access to life-changing, long-lasting results that the traditional medical system historically has not been able to provide, but ethical concerns are not reserved just for AI. Drug policy is changing, and initial results may look promising, but limitations of the current medical model must be overcome, and associated risks should not be overlooked. Psychedelics have a long history outside of the doctor’s office and do not just seamlessly fit into existing frameworks. Although new technologies are being explored to help measure efficacy and ensure safety, much remains unknown and uncertain about psychedelics and their future. 

Psychedelics have a multi-layered perception problem. Leveraging buzzwords like “neuroplasticity” can only go so far and simply relabeling these drugs as transformative medicine or neurotechnology does not erase decades of controversy, engrained attitudes and countless news stories. Controlled and rigorous clinical trials are a step in the right direction, but no magic pill or magic mushroom can solve our national crisis; psychedelics as medical intervention is just one piece of the modern health puzzle.

In an age of great mistrust and skepticism, a scientifically legitimate, responsible and cohesive story is crucial now more than ever, and it will be interesting to see how this one unfolds. As consumers increasingly view pharma brands as lifestyle brands, what will psychedelics have to say about how they fit into our lives?