By Candice Folkard
Psychedelics have a rich history, from use amongst indigenous people, guided by ancient knowledge passed on through centuries of traditional practices, to their discovery by modern science leading into a hampering period of criminalisation and finally through to a resurgence of research into uses in modern psychological treatment. A brief insight into the research, past and present, shines a light on the profound potential of psychedelics. Many studies have perfected the formula for safe therapeutic use, right dose and setting with skilled facilitators. This combination, with few treatment sessions, has provided sufferers of treatment-resistant major depressive disorder, depression and anxiety associated with diagnosis of terminal illness, severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorder, with exceptional enduring therapeutic benefits (Bright & Williams, 2018; Carhart-Harris et al., 2018; Daniel & Haberman, 2017).
The state of mental health is at a tipping point, on the verge of further decline with exacerbation from an imminent economic depression and the increased psychological distress experienced due to the COVID-19 situation. A new approach to mental health treatment is an impending necessity, to help curb future burdens associated with increasing levels of mental distress. Psychedelic research has provided promising results, making psychedelic medicine an obvious candidate for the progression into a new paradigm for treating mental illness. Given the significant benefits of psychedelic medicines, relaying this information to the general public effectively is an important step towards the acceptance and integration of psychedelic-assisted therapy.
This exceptional period of rapid change that we currently find ourselves in has exposed a deep divide in understandings, views and opinions amongst individuals, communities, governments and within institutions. The COVID-19 situation, which is both symbolic and symptomatic of this complex time, has on the one hand produced an enormous amount of conflicting information coming from multiple sources, while on the other hand has not produced a single authoritative position, making it hard for most to differentiate fact from opinion and science from politics. These tensions are not unfamiliar to researchers in the area of psychedelic medicines; however, the scale of the current crisis changes the way we see the problem and directs us to new ways of responding. The COVID-19 situation has shown that when deciphering information, there is an obvious disparity between and within, science, medicine, politics and industry.
Information from highly influential sources leading to impulsive decision-making, has the capacity to produce unforeseen undesirable implications. We have seen an example of this recently with the initial predicted COVID-19 death rate—later found to be highly inaccurate—resulting in the instantaneous introduction of new policies worldwide. With the implementation of these policies, we are now witnessing a rise in mental illness, substance abuse and suicide risk (Wesley Mission & Suicide Prevention Australia, 2020). In hindsight the inadequacies and long-term implications of these policies are becoming visible, highlighted by new and upcoming research (Atkeson et al., 2020; Kaplan et al., 2020; Madhi, et al., 2020; Miles et al., 2020).
The complexity and tensions inherent within the COVID-19 situation present a unique opportunity for reflective research in that it surfaces, in a very explicit way, the challenges associated with the delivery and receipt of information. Learning from the COVID-19 situation, more focus can be placed on the fundamentals of the spread of information within the area of psychedelic medicines and how information flows impact on consensus and associated behaviour and attitudes.
The public perception of psychedelic medicines, relates back to the criminalisation of psychedelics in the 1960’s. The residual effects of this classification, including stigmatisation, rejection and fear, is central to the continuous spread of confusing and incorrect information within the public domain (Belouin & Henningfield, 2018; Bright & Williams, 2018; Sessa, 2016). The spread of this information has both created serious limitations for scientific research, and the uptake of the medicines and therapies themselves (Belouin & Henningfield, 2018; Bright & Williams, 2018; Sessa, 2016).
The way in which information is delivered can either be, a shortcoming for the distribution of correct information, or a catapult for the distribution of incorrect information, leading to a myriad of challenges for policymakers and public health. The dissemination of information in the COVID-19 environment has brought into focus the associated challenges, highlighting how advancements in the use of psychedelic-assisted therapy may be curtailed. It is an important consideration when making informed decisions regarding the delivery of information, to examine and understand the sources, intended purposes behind, and the interpretation.
Misinformation can be described as information that originates from an absence or lack of supporting empirical or factual evidence. History tells us that the current scheduling of psychedelics follows on from the criminalisation of LSD in 1966 (Belouin & Henningfield, 2018; Sessa, 2016). LSD was completely banned for any use, including research purposes, on the basis that it posed a danger to the public, despite thousands of studies on the therapeutic use of LSD during the 1950’s and 1960’s deeming LSD, when used in controlled settings, to be “overwhelmingly safe and effective” (Sessa, 2016, p. 8). Based on this, the criminalisation and stringent scheduling of psychedelics is not supported by empirical evidence and based on misinformation.
In understanding the roots and propagation of misinformation, it is important to examine the sources. A study by McCright and Dunlap (2017) discusses the origins and spread of political misinformation and outlines that it is; often based on ideological agendas, deeply ingrained and mutually reinforced by the public, and cohesively promoted through collaborative relationships with industries and media outlets. This study highlights the disregard for accuracy in the delivery of highly influential information and also the difficulties in rectification at this level.
Research suggests that information is often selectively chosen, skewed or sensationalised for entertainment purposes (Klin & Lemish, 2008). With the media driven stigma of a ‘dangerous party drug’, ecstasy is an unregulated drug found to often not contain MDMA at all (Rickwood et al., 2005). MDMA, the psychedelic component in what’s been classified as breakthrough treatment for PTSD (Doblin et al., 2019) is often misleadingly referred to as ecstasy. This demonstrates the potential for incorrect terminology to exacebate misconceptions. However, becoming aware of misleading terminology allows for intervention to expose and correct it, helping to conteract misconceptions.
Aside from understanding and acknowledging the origins of information and misinformation, it is equally important, to recognise and understand how it is received and absorbed. Deciphering whether information is correct or incorrect involves not only the way it is delivered but also how it is interpreted, transferred into knowledge and beliefs, and interacts with prior knowledge and beliefs. Amongst the general population there are many misconceptions associated with psychedelics as a result of misinformation, such as, they are dangerous, toxic and addictive physically, psychologically and/or socially (Belouin & Henningfield, 2018; Byock, 2018). These misconceptions have been refuted by the large amount of research that has taken place since psychedelic medicines were discovered by scientists in the 1890’s (Bright & Williams, 2018; Nichols, 2016; Sessa, 2016), but the obvious dilemma is that such research is not readily available to, or accessed by the general public.
Misconceptions and misinformation are difficult to counteract, as they become imbedded in beliefs and attitudes. The “war on drugs” campaign, led by politics and propagated by mass media has left an unfortunate legacy. The campaign established psychedelics position as an enemy and threat to society. In establishing this position, knowledge was tactfully directed, shifting and cementing the general public opinion of psychedelics. In a study reviewing literature on cognitive biases that influence social perceptions, Marks and Miller (1987) found that values and beliefs held by individuals are often influenced by social groups and the selective exposure to biased samples of information that agrees with and maintains a desired or already held position.
It has been proposed that individuals generally only seek new knowledge when it is necessary or vitally important to do so (Thon & Jucks, 2017), and when it comes to acknowledging new information – whether it is evidence based or not – an individual’s prior knowledge and beliefs are often defended and upheld (Pennycook, 2020). Clearly, prior knowledge and beliefs play a significant role in the adoption of new information, exemplifying the difficulties in shifting firmly held beliefs and gaining trust and acceptance.
The “war on drugs” has been described as, a war on “sovereignty over consciousness” (Hancock, 2015, p. 3). In the current media climate we are witnessing an increase in sensorship and a polarisation of information, which similarly to the “war on drugs” can be described as a war on sovereignty over knowledge. Ideally there should be accountability for ingenuousness within sources of information, but it is instead, left to the individual to firstly identify misinformation and secondly rationally and logically question it. Awareness leads to change and begins with acknowledgement and acceptance. Acknowledging and accepting the dilemmas within the delivery and uptake of information, will therefore bring about awareness necessary for change.
Misinformation is somewhat complicated and incorporates many variables from all parties including the sources of information and the intended audience, and many aspects that influence the interpretation and accommodation of information. Misinformation has effectively sustained misconceptions and stigmatisation surrounding psychedelics. It is therefore relevant to investigate and understand in order to move forward and create a model for initiating and establishing positive views and attitudes towards psychedelic medicines and therapies. Further research is needed to explore the barriers surrounding misinformation, to aid successful advocation for psychedelic medicines and promote their place in therapeutic, psychological and clinical practice.
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