‘How to Change Your Mind’ and the Destigmatisation of Psychedelics

michael pollan how to change your mind destigmatisation of psychedelics

The Netflix docuseries How to Change Your Mind, based on Michael Pollan’s book of the same name, explores the history and therapeutic effects of four different psychoactive compounds: LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline (with the episodes in that order). 

Directed by Alison Ellwood and Lucy Walker, and presented by Pollan, How to Change Your Mind aims to communicate the incredible healing potential of psychedelics to the public, helping to allay the long-standing stigma and fear surrounding these compounds.

How to Change Your Mind adds to the efforts of destigmatising psychedelics in a number of ways. However, there are concerns that excitement about these treatments and the necessary task of addressing public fears about them may mean that genuine risks become overlooked. It’s important to consider this in light of How to Change Your Mind. Showing the masses what psychedelic therapy actually entails – through footage of sessions and interviews with participants – can be highly impactful. But destigmatisation shouldn’t mean that the public gets left in the dark about risks and downsides.

The Stigma of Psychedelics

The first episode of How to Change Your Mind delves into the stigma surrounding psychedelics, relating to LSD specifically. Pollan reminds us of scare stories – perpetuated by shoddy science and the news media in the 60s – about how taking this drug would, for example, scramble your chromosomes.

While media publications of all political leanings now report positively on the latest scientific research on psychedelic therapy, the stigma fuelled by hysteria and urban legends from the 60s persists. Taking psychedelics can still instantly make people think of having a scary experience or going permanently insane. Psychedelics may, for many people, be associated with acid casualties or woo-woo – reserved only for hippies or New Agers. 

These associations can be out of keeping with the potential of these compounds to help rather than ruin people’s mental health – making them suitable for people with diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and lifestyles. 

Destigmatising Psychedelics Through Mass Media

Mass media – especially content on Netflix, viewed by millions of people of all age groups and walks of life – can play a vital role in changing long-held (and negative) assumptions about mind-altering drugs. How to Change Your Mind does this in different but equally important ways. 

Firstly, we have Pollan – a highly respected journalist and author – not just presenting an optimistic view of psychedelics; we also see him openly relay his experiences with these substances. 

As with Pollan’s other work in food and agriculture, he wanted to gain a first-hand glimpse into the states of mind he was reporting on – the kinds of experiences that can help cancer patients deal with their fear of death (which Pollan wrote about in a 2015 piece for The New Yorker called The Trip Treatment). Pollan also has profound and life-changing experiences with substances like psilocybin, and by sharing his experiences – as well as listening to stories of journeys from others – we start to see just how special and meaningful these sessions can be for people. Rather than dangerously warp minds, psychedelics can lead to more expansive, flexible, and healthy ways of thinking and feeling.

It may be common to think of tripping as something recreational, reserved for the young and careless, but altered states can serve a much deeper purpose, suitable for any age group (Pollan didn’t start experimenting with psychedelics in this way until his 60s and we see that older participants in clinical trials, like those taking psilocybin for end-of-life anxiety, are open to these experiences, too.) 

Seeing what psychedelic therapy actually looks like – in the psilocybin and MDMA episodes – lets the public understand that these compounds can lead to major shifts in how people deal with conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcoholism. With the support of psychotherapists at hand, patients are given the freedom to connect to their emotions, feel compassion for themselves, alter their sense of self, and reframe distressing events. 

The ability of psychedelics to unstick people from rumination after a single session, something which normal psychotherapy may take years to achieve (or never at all), comes through in How to Change Your Mind. These changes are further revealed in the interviews with trial participants, such as Lori Tipton, who was helped by MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in dealing with her severe PTSD. 

Finally, the makers of How to Change Your Mind wanted to do away with stereotypical and surface-level ideas about psychedelics. Ellwood writes:

We didn’t want to fall into the trap of using psychedelic visual tropes — wild colors, rainbow streaks, morphing images. We wanted to keep the visual style more personal, intimate and experiential. We wanted people watching the series who have not had their own psychedelic experiences to be able to relate to the visuals.

Was ‘How to Change Your Mind’ Balanced Enough?

In the episode on LSD on How to Change Your Mind, we see a segment about the purported benefits of microdosing. But what viewers aren’t informed of is how the benefits people get from microdosing – such as improvements to mental health – could be down to the placebo effect

This isn’t to say that regular, tiny doses of psilocybin and LSD don’t help people, but it could be misleading to suggest that it is the psychedelic itself, and not the expectation of getting better, that is driving these changes. If the public feels they’re being told a one-sided and overly positive narrative about psychedelics, this could end up hindering destigmatisation.

In addition, How to Change Your Mind could be criticised for overlooking some of the real risks of psychedelics. In the LSD episode, for instance, Pollan mentions that in those prone to schizophrenia, a psychedelic trip may trigger the onset of the condition. But there isn’t a mention of other mental health conditions that may be worsened by psychedelics, including mania, or how negative psychedelic experiences can feature temporary psychosis, which is severely distressing.

Some people, whether predisposed or not, may also suffer from depersonalisation, derealisation, anxiety, and depression following their trips. Furthermore, these substances can lead to a rare condition known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), or lingering and distressing changes to perception following the use of psychedelics. (Pollan has addressed many of the risks of psychedelics on his website, but it would’ve been useful if these were given the spotlight in the docuseries as well.)

Moreover, what was left out of the MDMA episode were certain ethical issues associated with clinical trials on MDMA therapy sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Participants have spoken out about how their mental health worsened as a result of the trial (which was not reflected in the data), while MAPS therapists Richard Yensen and Dr Donna Dryer were found to have crossed physical boundaries with one participant, Meaghan Buisson, who has struggled with PTSD related to sexual abuse. The Complainers – a multidisciplinary psychedelic ethics research group – stated in a Medium post:

The potential for harm resulting from a potentiation of/synergy with poor, misguided, or ill-intended psychotherapy practices, combined with drugs that lower inhibition and increase suggestibility, cannot be ignored.

How to Change Your Mind could have been more balanced in its presentation of the benefits and risks of psychedelics. It is understandable that psychedelic advocates would want to avoid bolstering fears about the risks, especially when it comes to things like HPPD, which may make people worried about experiencing ‘flashbacks’ after a trip. 

But for destigmatisation to work as a long-term strategy, the potential risks have to be acknowledged. This will ensure that the public can trust psychedelic advocates and researchers, and also help people to use these substances carefully, avoiding adverse events that the media might sensationalise, fuelling stigma once again. 

How to Change Your Mind, nonetheless, remains an engaging, informative, and moving exploration of psychedelics, and it is likely to change a lot of minds in the direction that they need to be changed. However, for those seeking (what I think is) a more balanced perspective on psychedelics, I’d recommend checking out Dr Rick Strassman’s latest book, The Psychedelic Handbook

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