EletiofeIs the Psychedelic Therapy Bubble About to Burst?

Is the Psychedelic Therapy Bubble About to Burst?


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Psychedelic research, for all its promise, is still at the embryonic stage. Trials so far have been small, and while results such as those from Imperial suggest that certain substances could be useful, findings don’t support any claims of these drugs being able to cure mental health conditions.

The more time she has spent working with patients, the more Watts has come to believe that the drugs themselves are not the key; the real value lies, she says, in the therapeutic experience—the “assisted therapy” part of psychedelic-assisted therapy. This is where a person sits with a guide for hours after having taken a psychedelic, in what should be a safe and compassionate context, with the space to untangle deeply buried feelings and trauma. The effects of the psychedelic help to create this space.

“The drug was a catalyst to the therapeutic process, not the therapeutic process itself,” she wrote in her Medium piece when describing her involvement in the Imperial trial. Afterward, participants received aftercare, known as “integration,” in which they process everything that happened during the trip. Therefore, new startups offering psychedelic treatment without the assisted therapy component could stand to actually do harm, Watts worries. “Some people will have this big burst of openness, and they won’t have the support to deal with it,” she says. Plus, the actual therapeutic effect of these drugs in these scenarios could end up being pretty muted. “There will be lots of companies, I think, who have invested in the drug without therapeutic support, who will find that their results are very, very disappointing for their shareholders.” When you see a headline extolling the virtues of “resetting your brain,” what’s missing is the “visceral, sometimes hellish experience” of actually doing that, Watts says.

And in an attempt to protect the field, it also seems that some criminal actions are being glossed over and going unchecked. In recent years, cases of sexual abuse during psychedelic therapy have come to light. Earlier this year, New York Magazine, in collaboration with psychedelic watchdog nonprofit Psymposia, explored sexual abuse taking place in psychedelic clinical trials in an investigative podcast called Cover Story: Power Trip. A notable example was the story of Meaghan Buisso, who in 2015 took part in a trial testing MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, as part of a clinical trial hosted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a psychedelic research nonprofit. During this trial she was sexually assaulted.

Psychedelics induce a specific kind of vulnerability, as they are known to enhance suggestibility and sexual feelings. That means addressing the risk of sexual abuse in psychedelic research and therapy should be prioritized as highly as the risks of hype, says Neşe Devenot, a postdoctoral associate at the Institute for Research in Sensing at the University of Cincinnati and a team member of Psymposia. “Historically, some of the scientists working in the field have really dismissed, discounted, and even ostracized the people who have spoken up about risk,” she says. Psychedelic researchers themselves haven’t spoken up much about this specific risk set, and Devenot says they need to.

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