Some Reflections on the Backlash Against Psychedelic Hype

psychedelic hype

The hype surrounding psychedelics can be characterised as an overly positive picture of the benefits of psychedelics and an attitude of overlooking, ignoring, or downplaying the harms and risks of these compounds. We can view this as Pollyannaism applied to psychedelics.

The growing psychedelic industry can be seen as following the trend of the Gartner hype cycle, a graph developed and used by the American technology firm Gartner to represent how a technology evolves over time. While not a technology per se, psychedelics seem to have followed the pattern of this hype cycle: the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ – the proliferation of studies into the effects and benefits of these compounds in the last 20 years or so – led to inflated expectations, a peak of such expectations, and has now been on the path of disillusionment. 

Experts in the field have argued that the psychedelic hype bubble will burst (and there are signs already that this rush of enthusiasm is petering out). The bursting or deflation of this hype bubble will lead to a trough of disillusionment (for many, it already has); but by moving beyond overly negative and positive extremes, we can gain a more realistic view of psychedelics that embraces the actual evidence. This will set the psychedelic industry on the slope of enlightenment, leading to a plateau of productivity.

Those in the field of psychedelic research who have warned against the rose-tinted, overly positive picture of psychedelics include Rosalind Watts – former Clinical Lead for Imperial College London’s psilocybin trial – and Rick Strassman, who has been credited with kickstarting the psychedelic renaissance with his studies on DMT that took place between 1990 and 1995, which broke the 20-year gap in psychedelic research. 

But there are many other voices warning against psychedelic hype. These include the writers at Psymposia – who have brought attention to issues like the abuse that can occur in psychedelic therapy – and other writers who highlight psychedelic harms, such as Jules Evans (who is behind the Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project and Ecstatic Integration site) and Ed Prideaux (who has written extensively on the post-trip condition known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, or HPPD). 

The backlash against psychedelic hype is multifaceted, however. It is necessary, but there is always a risk it may veer into the overly negative, perhaps even feeding into the 1960s-style stigma and scaremongering that has been so difficult to combat. Moreover, the intentions behind the backlash are often based on an evidence-based, harm-reduction mindset, but it may – in addition to such a mindset, or without it – also be based on other attitudes. I would like to describe some of the most common themes behind psychedelic hype, the backlash against it, and some reflections I had on the complex picture of anti-psychedelic hype.

The Common Themes of Psychedelic Hype

There are justified reasons to combat psychedelic hype, based on the biased, zealous, and inaccurate beliefs that those in the psychedelic community may hold, including the notions that:

  • Psychedelics can cure forms of distress like depression by ‘rebooting’ or ‘resetting’ the brain (terms often used by media outlets to increase interest and excitement about psychedelic research, then repeated by psychedelic users and the general public, which Watts has argued are misleading). Inaccurate metaphors like ‘reboot’ can create unrealistic expectations in those seeking relief from distress through psychedelics, which may lead to disappointment following treatment.
  • A psychedelic experience is equivalent to years of therapy.
  • Psychedelics will allow us to achieve a world of ‘net-zero trauma’, as argued by Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which has funded many clinical trials on psychedelic therapy. It is highly questionable, of course, that psychedelics mean that no one will suffer from trauma again (by the year 2070, according to Doblin).
  • Psychedelic use will bring about a utopia of universal love, no war, ecological balance, and progressive and liberal values (which the journalist Shayla Love has pointed out is mistaken, for a number of evidence-based reasons). Connected to this is the belief that psychedelics are a panacea for our psychological and social ills (which I have examined here and here).
  • Psychedelics are non-addictive (a view challenged by Prideaux).
  • Psychedelics make you a better person (an attitude that is challenged by the potential of these compounds to also lead to or strengthen fascist and Nazi ideologies, messiah complexes, conspiracy thinking, and cult behaviour). Much of the dark side of psychedelics is influenced by ‘set and setting’ – the mindset and cultural/political context in which their use occurs – which are non-drug factors, so it may seem unfair to call the above risks of psychedelics per se. Nonetheless, if the benefits of psychedelics can be influenced by set and setting as well, then it is justified to speak of the above as risks of psychedelics.

These responses to psychedelic hype are justified and create a culture of balance and evidence-mindedness surrounding the psychedelic experience. It’s crucial that those who have used psychedelics, whether they have felt to be overall helped or harmed by them, maintain a measured perspective on psychedelics while being honest about their experiences. Telling stories of personal benefit and harm need not lead to a biased view of psychedelics.

In terms of anti-psychedelic hype, there are other motivations, besides balance and harm reduction, that may underlie it. Some of these motivations can be counterproductive to creating a realistic perspective on these compounds.

The Dangers of the Trough of Disillusionment

With the hype cycle in mind, there’s a worry that blowback against psychedelic hype, occurring in the trough of disillusionment, will lead to views about psychedelics becoming unrealistically negative. And perhaps many people already hold such views, and I try to make sure I don’t fall into this trap myself. 

This trough of disillusionment may include a tendency to ignore or downplay the evidence-based benefits of psychedelics and to focus on or exaggerate harms. This is dangerous as it may end up repeating or feeding into many negative perceptions about psychedelics, including the idea that they can make anyone prone to suicidality. (A Compass Pathways clinical trial on psilocybin for depression found that some patients with treatment-resistant depression experienced suicidal ideation and displayed suicidal behaviour after their psilocybin sessions, which are a more at-risk group for such adverse events, given their condition.) 

If the discussion of the risks of psychedelics isn’t balanced, it may end up bolstering other fear-based narratives surrounding them, such as those related to permanent psychosis, flashbacks, violence, and cults. Of course, psychedelics have the potential to trigger or worsen some of these outcomes in a subset of users (with many risk factors known and others unknown). But this doesn’t mean we should generalise, exaggerate, or become obsessed with such risks, otherwise we may give fuel to those who call for repressive policies that block research on psychedelics (which will be counterproductive to enhancing the benefits of psychedelics and minimising their harms – the more we know, the better).

Psychedelic Hipsterism and the Psychedelic Ego

It is possible that there can be a subset of people who focus on the risks and harms of psychedelics because raving about the benefits is no longer considered to be ‘cool’. In other words, talk of the benefits has become too mainstream. This may be a cynical interpretation, but this kind of hipsterish attitude may apply in some cases (the tendency to want to be a contrarian – in an outspoken minority on the side of right – can apply to any issue, including psychedelic use). 

It’s important to be alert to the motivation behind pointing out risks during discussions about the benefits of psychedelics. Does this come from a place of measuredness and harm reduction or wanting to appear more knowledgeable, interesting, and controversial? There can be something appealing about disillusionment: projecting this attitude can make one feel less naive and immature than others who have not yet seen the light. The psychedelic ego – the ego’s tendency to exploit anything related to psychedelics for its own purposes – means that a legitimate subject like risks and harm reduction may serve (at least partly) to prop up one’s ego.

The Discussion of Risks Can Be Personally Interesting

Speaking personally, I have been fascinated by the capacity of psychedelics to improve mental health and self-growth for the past 10 years. I have also, more recently, become interested in the potential risks and harms of psychedelic use. This is partly because I think there needs to be more balance when we discuss psychedelics, as this will have crucial implications for use in all kinds of contexts: recreational use, personal exploration, group experiences, retreats, and clinical settings. 

However, another reason for being more intrigued by the risks is that this area is simply more novel and uncharted. Undoubtedly, there is much more to unearth about how and to what extent psychedelics benefit people’s well-being, but there is also much to be discovered about the various psychological, ethical, and social risks of psychedelics. The mainstreaming and increasing availability of psychedelics leaves us with many questions regarding safety:

  • What should the age restrictions be for buying psychedelics?
  • Should harm reduction information be given or included as a label on the product or as a leaflet? If so, what should this information consist of?
  • Should all psychedelics be sold equally? Should potent compounds like 5-MeO-DMT be as accessible as psilocybin mushrooms?
  • What are the dangers of the for-profit model of psychedelic therapy and how do we address them?
  • Do psychedelic therapists need to have their own experiences with psychedelics to better look after their clients’ well-being?
  • How can we minimise the risk of therapists crossing physical and sexual boundaries during psychedelic sessions?
  • How can therapists and guides ensure they avoid negatively impacting a client when they are in a suggestibility-enhanced state while on a psychedelic?
  • How can therapists and guides make sure they respect someone’s autonomy when they are in an altered state?
  • How do we tackle the link between psychedelic use and cult-like behaviour?
  • What funding is needed in terms of after-care for those who have suffered harm following psychedelic use?
  • How do we best care for people struggling with extended difficulties after their psychedelic experiences?
  • How do we mitigate the risk of psychedelics generating false and maladaptive insights and beliefs?

It is always difficult to ascertain what it means to be ‘balanced’ when approaching any subject. Balance can be viewed as becoming dedicated to discussing risks in a culture that narrowly focuses on – and hypes up – benefits. It could also be seen as taking an evidence-based and cautious approach to psychedelics, recognising their potential to both heal and harm while acknowledging how much we don’t know. While drawing attention to the risks of psychedelics is, in many cases, adding a much-needed perspective to an often one-sided discussion, we should also ensure that risks themselves are discussed in a measured way. Otherwise, we may end up obfuscating the nature of these compounds and their effects.

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