Psychedelics, those mind-altering substances often touted as the vanguard in treating mental health challenges, are not the panacea they’ve been portrayed as, according to a new study. Instead, they may be propping up the very societal structures that contribute to widespread mental distress.
The research, led by James Davies, Brian A. Pace, and Neşe Devenot and published in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies, explores how the burgeoning field of psychedelic-assisted therapy (P-AT) is entangled with the neoliberal paradigms that underpin much of psychiatric research and medical practice.
For years, advocates of psychedelic medicine have positioned these substances as revolutionary — a silver bullet that would free individuals from debilitating mental ruts. But, the researchers argue the commercial industry built around psychedelics is reproducing the profit-driven approaches that have previously led to questionable clinical outcomes in psychiatric medications like SSRIs.
“We present evidence that the liberatory rhetoric of psychedelic medicalization promotes neoliberal, individualised treatments for distress, which distracts from collective efforts to address root causes of suffering through systemic change.,” the authors write. They further illustrated how the discourse around psychedelic medicalization “subjects socially-determined distress to psychotropic intervention through mechanisms such as depoliticization, commodification, and de-collectivization.”
Psilocybin, the dominant compound found in psychoactive fungi, can be therapeutic for psychic suffering and soothing symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses. Historically, these healing experiences have been found when ‘tripping’ or using psilocybin recreationally. However, in the past decade, pharmaceutical companies have begun researching how psychedelic substances or Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy (P-AT) can be used in controlled mental health settings.
In their article, Davies and his co-authors warn that the psychedelic pharmaceutical industry is participating in the same neoliberal, for-profit practices that have contributed to the poor clinical outcomes that other individualized treatments for mental illness like SSRIs and mood stabilizers.
The authors, from the UK and the United States, write:
“This current paper contends that psychedelics are now being framed by key financial and political actors as harbingers of a meaningful (and often utopian) clinical and social revolution, despite every indication that they will be operationalized in ways that discourage material change. On the contrary, we assert that at a structural level, their rise threatens to leverage—and so be enabled by—the very mechanisms that have facilitated the dominance of medicalized meanings and psycho-pharmaceutical interventions over the past four decades. In this sense, we are interested in the vectors of collusion between neoliberalism and the mental health sector as they play out in the rise of the psychedelic movement.”
The paper demonstrates that neoliberalism individualizes mental distress in a way that cannot meaningfully address the social determinants of mental health: inequality, ecological collapse, and exploitation. First, the authors outline the rise of medicalization. They then describe the process of depoliticization, productivization and pathologization, commodification, and then de-collectivization.
Drawing from an extensive body of research linking mental health treatments to neoliberal practice, the authors challenge the notion that psychedelics can solve systemic issues like political violence, structural oppression, and social injustice. Simply put, individual interventions can’t fix collective problems.
The authors highlight how the medicalization of mental health aligns with the values of late capitalism and neoliberalism.
“…since the 1980s, socially determined distress has become increasingly liable to psychiatric framing and—in turn—psychotropic intervention. While medicalization constitutes the central mechanism for transitioning adverse experience onto the ground of medical heuristics and management, it has also enabled the operation of germane and somewhat intersecting mechanisms such as depoliticization, productivisation, pathologization, commodification, and de-collectivization…further render medicalizing practice and discourse consistent with the key aims and values of late capitalism.”
Advocates for P-AT often appeal to medical authorities by writing about P-AT interventions in the way mood stabilizers and antidepressants are typically written about—as scalable, replicable, standardized, and, most importantly, profitable.
This appeal, however, necessarily situates P-AT alongside other psychotropic medications, medicalizing mental illness further and depoliticizing it. Neoliberalism affects different communities in the world differently. Psychedelic therapies, the authors argue, inherently depoliticize mental distress by framing suffering not as something that is caused by social factors and is instead an individual failure—an individual failure that is up to the individual to fix. Unfortunately, this depoliticization is used to ‘hype’ psychedelic therapies to quickly improve mental health issues rather than address the systems causing them.
COVID is a good example:
“Similarly, we see P-AT floated as an ideal treatment for individuals experiencing system-wide, pandemic-related depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance use disorders while both government and industry push for an end to work-from-home and other safety measures that have been shown to mitigate COVID impacts.”
The push to remedy the mental distress of COVID was not to elevate distress for distress’s sake. Instead, it was to get them back to work as soon as possible. Recent P-AT hype implies that not wanting to work is pathological. And that being as innovative and as productive as possible is best.
Unfortunately, “…enthusiastic business press pieces have pondered the trend of entrepreneurs and tech workers using psychedelics as catalysts for innovation in business and technology…much of this exploration has occurred in Silicon Valley, which has helped elevate such psychedelic instrumentalization by raising the profile of psychedelics in a context of start-ups and venture capital funders.”
Psychedelics are inherently tied not only to productivity and pathology, just like SSRIs, but are also like common psychotropic medications insofar as they make human suffering into a “vibrant market opportunity.” The global market of psychopharmaceuticals is valued at over 25 billion, and psychedelic interventions are unlikely to stray from this norm so long as mental distress is treated individually and social suffering is made a personal problem; collective action to address social inequity is unlikely.
The authors conclude:
“The belief that P-AT represents a paradigm shift in mental health does not make it so. Political violence, structural oppression, workplace exploitation, social isolation, inequality, social injustice, ecological collapse, and climate catastrophe are significant social and environmental determinants of distress that individual solutions cannot fix. If P-AT is deployed into the existing neoliberal mental health paradigm, mental distress will continue to be framed as a problem of mindset, ineffective coping, and inadequate resilience.”
This is not the first time scholars have sounded the alarm and warned the public to be cautious around P-AT. Past studies have also highlighted significant threats to the validity of psychedelic research, and others have sought to point out the hidden harms of the so-called psychedelic renaissance.
The study serves as a stark reminder to temper expectations around the transformative powers of psychedelics and to remain wary of how commercial interests might influence therapeutic applications. As the psychedelics movement continues its ascent into the mainstream, researchers, and advocates must grapple with its place in the broader socio-political landscape and the potential consequences of intertwining healing with profit.
Davies, J., Pace, B. A., & Devenot, N. (2023). Beyond the psychedelic hype: Exploring the persistence of the neoliberal paradigm. Journal of Psychedelic Studies. (Link)