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The Media’s Portrayal of Psychedelic Therapy in America

“The Media’s Portrayal of Psychedelic Therapy in America” with co-hosts Jimmy Nguyen and Nick Levich, discusses the sensationalization of psychedelic therapy in the media, and the consequences it could have on informed consent. 

One of the key questions raised is how to balance expectations when faced with sensationalized media stories about psychedelic therapy. The hosts encourage critical thinking and discernment to avoid getting carried away by exaggerated or misleading narratives. 

Through this conversation, they highlight how preparation and integration–two integral parts of psychedelic therapy, are often left out of the media’s spotlight. Nick and Jimmy also share their thoughts on the portrayal of success, from clinical trials to self-proclaimed gurus. 

They close out the conversation by pondering what the psychedelic landscape could look like in the future, and what they hope for it. 

Will proper psychedelic healing models be accessible to everyone? Will the commercialization of psychedelics be their downfall? Not if we can help it!

 

Episode 46: The Media’s Portrayal of Psychedelic Therapy in America

Nick: Welcome to the Psychedelic Passage podcast. My name is Nick Levich, I’m here with my cohost, and cofounder Jimmy Nguyen. Thank you for joining us today. 

This week we are talking about what the documentaries and media portrayals of psychedelics fail to portray, what they don’t tell you, all the stuff that happens behind the scenes that doesn’t make the cut. 

And I want to start off by saying, they’re almost always going to only focus on the sensational stories and not what I’ll call the more normal outcomes.

 

American Media Sensationalization of Psychedelic Therapy

[00:00:37] Jimmy: Yeah, I think a narrative that is woven around psychedelics as it’s becoming immersed with our society and mainstream perception. And I’m a little torn here because I’m appreciative of information and documentaries and clinical studies and all of that. 

We’re in a world where the amount of information publicly available about psychedelics is probably the highest it’s ever been and will continue to be so, which is so important. I’m really grateful for that. 

At the same time, I know that the stories that make it into the headlines that are buzzworthy that folks are gravitating towards and reading, only paint a specific view of the psychedelic landscape and just use with psychedelics in general.

Nick: To me, it’s like the 80/20 rule. They’re focused on 20% of the most sensational outcomes, and the vast majority of folks are falling into 80% of call it like average efficacy. 

It doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. To your point, it’s good that the media does this because it does show what’s possible, but it doesn’t mean that that’s what you should expect.

Jimmy: Yeah, it’s the expectation setting that we always continually–

Nick: Come back to.

Jimmy: –circle around to. There’s a difference when you want to get real about an intention that makes sense for you versus, “Oh, I want to have a mystical experience. That’s what I’m expecting,” because that’s what 66% of people reported after this one study. Or I’m expecting–

Nick: Ego death.

Jimmy: Ego death, or my depressive symptoms to go away for 90 days, and then they’ll come back. And so, yeah, it sets off a little bit of a– I think a false narrative, not on what’s potential with psychedelics, but they’re not guaranteed. 

Psychedelic experiences can take a wide range, big spectrum of not only the peak experience itself but the different outcomes. Now I still want to assure people that with the right preparation, with the right intention–

With the right integration, no matter how your psychedelic experience goes, there’s a potential for change and potential for meaning, but it’s not rosy and rainbows and butterflies all the time. Like it can be really hard.

Nick: I mean, look, for me the best way to illustrate this to our listeners is like what they choose to show on 60 Minutes is a gentleman who cured his alcoholism with a single dose. One session, done, alcoholism gone. Remarkable, truly remarkable. 

Do I believe it’s true? Absolutely. Now, have I personally worked with folks who are working through addiction and alcoholism and seen the same result. Not in one go. 

I don’t doubt it’s possible, but I’ve worked with a gentleman who is working through his alcoholism and we’re on ceremony four at this point. It’s important to understand that, yes, that is possible-

But for the average person, there’s a bit more work involved in that. It’s a longer road to get to that outcome than is maybe portrayed in the top 1% of outcomes.

Jimmy: Just because it’s possible and has the potential, it doesn’t mean that’s the standard norm or baseline outcome for folks. That doesn’t diminish the efficacy of the tool, if you’re viewing psychedelics as this tool.

Of course, it’s a sacrament and medicine and has a lot of cultural significance as well. But we’re speaking specifically about how our society here in America portrays psychedelic-related.

Nick: Yeah, I mean, overnight success stories, I wouldn’t say they’re the norm. I’ve seen it–[crosstalk]

Jimmy: A small percentage of my clients I would say, are like overnight, no additional- [crosstalk]

Nick: Nothing else is required.

Jimmy: -work required. [laughs]

Nick: Yeah, right. But that’s not normal it does happen, but I think what’s often overlooked is the challenge, the struggle, the pain, the discomfort-

All these things that are also a part of the healing journey, which you’ve heard us say is not linear. I just think it’s important that we highlight this other side of it because this is the real.

Jimmy: Let’s give some examples. I think what does this look like, how you see this in the media and stuff? What things do you think are propped up and what things do you think are not talked about as much?

 

Balancing Sensationalization With Realistic Expectations

[00:05:44] Nick: I mean, I think we’ve talked about what’s propped up, which is that the potential to this, that this will heal, insert the ailment, PTSD, anxiety, depression, addiction. Yes, and it does move the needle with all of those things. 

But I think what’s not highlighted is everything that occurs outside of that dosing session, outside of that actual six to eight hours where you’re taking the medicine. I’ve seen it where in one ceremony folks lives are transformed. 

But what’s not being portrayed in the media and in these studies is how much work they had to do leading up to that ceremony or that dosing session, and then how much work was required afterwards to maintain these changes and incorporate them into your life. 

Or, the folks who go in thinking they’re going to have this big massive experience, they eat six, seven grams of mushrooms, and “nothing happens.” And then they’re just disappointed, they feel like it’s failed them and their Hail Mary last shot out of desperation didn’t work.

Jimmy: Yeah, because you have to remember that the folks who are signing up for these clinical trials to speak specifically about them and research studies, they’re focused on things like PTSD, trauma, things where you’re just naturally in a vulnerable population-

Like you are just a person who has sensitive needs in society and around your care. Imagine if you’ve been waiting for this clinical trial, you finally get accepted, you go in, you do all of this. 

One study had like 16 prep sessions before the dosing session, you do all that, like your example, you take a dose and you don’t have an effect or what I think is even almost like sicker to a degree is when you go through all that then you’re in the placebo group.

Nick: Yeah, and you get a big dose of niacin.

Jimmy: You get a big dose of niacin and very clearly your body starts to get flush, start to get red, your heart rate starts to go up a little. It’s very clear in 30, 40 minutes that you are not about to have a psilocybin experience.

And then what? Do those folks receive the same amount of care in integration? How do they then go back to their existing structures of life and society and maybe their lack of support? 

You just have to understand that there’s way more than the positive end result that is like movie quality, it’s almost like–[crosstalk]

Nick: We love a success story. We love a good success story here.

Jimmy: It’s built into the ethos and the belief of our society. [crosstalk] 

Nick: The American dream is a big success story kind of thing.

Jimmy: Yeah.

Nick: But I think part of the problem with focusing on these sensational stories is it inherently fuels this like “take a pill and feel better” mentally.

Jimmy: Yeah, that’s really important that psychedelics have changed Nick and I’s lives. We understand the depth and the sacredness of what that means and it continues to be so like, sh*t’s not over. Like it continues to be-

Nick: For sure.

Jimmy: -unending process.

Nick: Still a tool that I go back to.

Jimmy: And at the same time, I recognize that psychedelics, when they interact with humans, a lot of it depends on what the human chooses to do with it. 

It becomes this platform, it becomes this vessel or this vehicle. And so, what can happen is that it can continue to feel this “take a pill and feel better.” Except you’re not taking an antidepressant, you’re taking a psychedelic now. 

You can see how just because there’s this novel new approach, that doesn’t mean that the existing way that we engage with mental health and healing and medicine and medication and all of that, all of those paradigms can still exist. 

What I tell people is that there’s a real incentive to cast psychedelics in a positive-only light. I’m saying those words specifically, thinking about all the clinical studies and trials and research that’s happening, those are fueled by private investors, government, organizations. 

Now there’s schools and institutions who have psychedelic-assisted therapy programs, there’s mycology programs, there’s all this stuff, there’s all the organizations and businesses and service providers who will come up.

There’s the whole supply chain around the psychedelics. And I don’t think everybody’s malicious here, but you can see why there’s a great incentive to just put on that really amazing result that you hear in a trial or a study or just put on that sensationalized thing. 

When in reality, psychedelics are like any large endeavor in your life where it comes with some risk. It requires a little bit of care, it requires a little bit of thoughtfulness. It’s not for everybody. 

You should get support and help around this stuff. It just creates a funny environment that we’re in right now where I’m torn, like I know the beauty and the meaningfulness of psychedelic experiences and I want to preach the good word too. 

At the same time, I’m like, “I want to get realistic here and help people to understand what they’re getting into if they’re exploring psychedelics.”

[00:11:50] Nick: Yeah, to me part of the good word is both the amazing potential and the very serious risks that also exist. If we’re not going to paint the full spectrum, the full complete picture, we’re going to be biased in how we look at it, we’re not going to have all the information.

I feel like a lot of times you and I serve as the check of reasonableness, the check against expectations for folks that come in and are like, “Cool. Well, I’m hoping that if I just do this session my depression goes away.” 

I’m super stoked that you’re pursuing this and that you hold a world where that’s a possibility. And also, it’s not a guarantee, and also, it’s probably going to take a lot of work to get there. 

And also, you may want to plan for more than just one session because we all have layers of shock, shame, trauma, conditioning that we got to work through to reorient and show up the way that we want to.

 

The Importance of Preparation & Integration in Psychedelic Therapy

[00:12:50] Jimmy: Yeah. The other part of this narrative, which something you said brings this up for me, the other part of the mainstream narrative in our society around psychedelics is it’s so focused on the dosing session or the ceremony or the actual ingestion of the psychedelic, which is very important.

It obviously has to happen as a part of engaging with psychedelics, but the containers around that preparation and integration are probably more important if anything. If we’re talking about meaningful, lasting change in your life.

Nick: I’ll rephrase what you said this way, but from my perspective, the energy that’s put into prep and integration is a better correlation to treatment outcomes than what your dose is.

Jimmy: Yeah. Well said.

Nick: Yeah, go ahead.

Jimmy: Well, I was going to say that what you were saying about how people have varying needs and there’s a lot of layers for folks and we’ve seen somebody’s care play out over weeks and months after a psychedelic experience-

Or all your sh*t gets stirred up in the weeks leading up to [laughs] ceremony or the dosing session. Our society is not built for that either. 

We don’t have systems of care where you can take it a little bit lighter on your responsibilities in life and get more direct support and care for a period of weeks and months. 

We’re just not built for that, like look at how much people get for maternity and paternity leave, let alone some time off for psychedelic experiences. 

I think that’s part of the weaving of this narrative because it has to fit into our society, and our society is like, “Let me take something to alleviate my symptoms so I can get back to it, so I can get back to whatever it says.”

Nick: Yeah, it’s all rooted in productivity and output.

Jimmy: And so, psychedelics aren’t like that. Let’s say you went through some really serious content in your psychedelic experience and you got a clear message to take it easy. Like, you need to take a break or you need to take a step back, or you need to whatnot. 

Are you even able to do that in your life? They’re not going to tell you that in the documentary, how to navigate that or like our previous episode, how to navigate a divorce or a breakup or quitting a job.

Nick: Yeah, this is not what’s shown in the documentary.

Jimmy: [laughs] Because the sexy part is like, “Let’s just have the experience and then show how everything has changed on a dime.” Not saying that’s not possible, but life is messy. Like, there’s just more to it than that.

Nick: For sure. One of the other things that I think is often not highlighted are the really challenging journeys people have. 

It’s one thing to film a journey where someone’s communing with the divine and they feel deep interconnectedness and self-love for the first time. Wow, amazing. We can all feel the gravity of that-

But then imagine the opposite end of the spectrum. They think they’re dying. They don’t think they’re breathing. They think they took too much. They want to get off the ride. 

That’s a scary place to be. And it happens. I’ve seen it happen firsthand. I’ve been the person going through that also.

Those are the kinds of journeys that frankly if you watch someone go through, it kind of scares the shit out of you. And so, to go back to this thing of like- 

“Well, if we show that, this isn’t going to look very appealing.” I’m like, “Yeah, well, we owe it to everybody to show both potential outcomes because those are both–” 

Jimmy: The full picture. 

Nick: Exactly. They’re both extremes and there’s a lot of people that land in the middle. It’s very neutral or whatever. But the same way there’s this extreme of amazing potential and sensational outcomes, there’s also this extreme of it being really hard during the actual journey. 

And this is what most people describe as a bad trip and we’ve got a whole another episode on that. I don’t want to beat a dead horse there.

 

How Sensationalization Hinders Informed Consent

[00:17:00] Jimmy: Yeah. I mean, what comes up for me is that if we’re talking about radical sovereignty and making your own choice about your body, your mental health care, your spirituality, engaging with psychedelics, exploring your consciousness–

Then it’s important to have an environment where you have informed consent. Informed consent only works when you have the full picture for you to be able to decide. And so, you just don’t get that in media. You never get the full picture. 

We’re in a society right now where it’s just hard to tell what’s the truth or what’s not the truth. And so, if this is an issue now, imagine what it’s going to be like in 5 to 7 years when there’s a lot of services marketing themselves in a certain way or making promises–[crosstalk]

Nick: I mean, I guarantee you– exactly. People are going to start making claims around what the expected outcome is going to be. “We’ll cure your XYZ,” and I [crosstalk] have a hard time–

Jimmy: My proprietary method in combination with psilocybin that’s cultivated exclusively. Like, I’ve developed my own strain and I’m the only one in America who can do this, come on by.

Nick: Or my specific protocol of MDMA first, followed by psilocybin, then back to MDMA, and then a 5-MeO experience, and you’re healed. I don’t think that’s going to fly. First of all, the expectations aren’t going to align. 

Look, I think it’s probably helpful for people if we explain the sense of like– every client that goes through psychedelic passage goes through the same program. It’s the same program, it’s the same core inputs, and yet the outcomes are wildly different. And the question is why? 

To me, to think that you can standardize this the same way that we like to standardize things in modern healthcare and pharmaceuticals, I think it’s kind of crazy because there’s a human element here that seems to go unchecked and so it’s going to be different for every person–

Which is exactly why your journey will never align with what you watch in the documentary. It’s just never going to be the same because you are an individual, you’re a snowflake, you’re one of one. Which means the way the medicine interacts with you is not going to be how it interacts with other people.

Jimmy: Yeah, there are times when I watch the documentaries and reading up on something and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had something similar that reminds me of something, or I could see how that potentiates with psilocybin, but never have I looked at something been like, yes, exactly.” [Nick laughs] 

Yeah, word for word, that’s exactly what– and I can recall it on demand like that somehow. It’s a really interesting time that we are in. To add to another layer of what you’re talking about on the individuality of the psychedelic unfolding process inherently baked into it Is also-

We’re in a landscape where things are actively being developed in real time around standards of service and what are best practices and what are proprietary protocols versus not.

And so it just creates a funny mix as these things come online where folks, then– I can see just how it would be challenging for a person who already has this backdrop of watching these documentaries, watching this content, consuming this media around psychedelics. 

So, you already have a preconceived notion. And then you already have your own process and journey and then you’re in a landscape where things are continually evolving and changing. 

And so, it’s like revolving doors that you’re walking through it to [laughs] try to figure out what the right thing is for you.

Nick: For sure. And if it wasn’t confusing enough already, what the media is often highlighting are these clinical trials. They write a headline like “psilocybin found to heal major depressive disorder in patients where no other treatment was successful.”

Something along those lines. Incredibly enticing. And then you look at it and you start to actually look at what’s going on in these studies and you realize, okay, they put a metric in there like 66% success rate. 

And then you realize what that’s really rooted in is patient’s self-reporting outcomes. Now, I don’t know about you all, but I am very bad at evaluating my–[crosstalk] emotional state bias. [Jimmy laughs] Exactly. How can you actually measure that in an unbiased way? 

So, look, we’ve all have good days and bad days. When you have a bad day, do you tell yourself that whatever treatment or therapy or whatever you didn’t work? When you have a good day, are you able to attribute it all to one thing? Probably not. 

This whole thing of self-reporting outcomes and then that being distilled down into a success rate is kind of crazy because my whole thing is like, “Okay, well, what defines success?

Jimmy: Yeah, this is exactly why it’s hard to get results from microdosing studies because there’s a long length of time where a lot of life happens, a lot of variability. 

So, how can you attribute something specifically to your psilocybin microdose or not? And we even see this in the MAPS clinical trials with MDMA, where in both phases, I think they’re in phase three or just submitted their phase three report.

There was also variability in practitioner, facilitator, location, their modalities, how they approach things because they had to have different sites that were all across the US.

They engage, for a lack of a better term, in collaborative partnerships with folks to do that. If you are at a site in California that might be different than the Canada-based study or whatnot. 

I think the main message here for folks is, as you’re looking at clinical studies and research specifically, is that the headline and even reading the study and the report won’t give you the whole picture. I think it’s important to take things with a grain of salt. 

I think the other part that I’m hearing is just keep in mind that there can be challenging, difficult parts of this, that’s built into the process. And also just being aware of the sensationalism around psychedelics right now because it is really true. 

As I said before, I’m calling it this psychedelic halo effect. We got to only cast psychedelics in a good light because there’s a lot of stuff riding on it and I think that’s somewhat myopic.

Nick: I don’t recall the exact number but they’re projecting it’s going to be like a $25 billion industry in the next 5 to 10 years. There is clearly a lot of vested interest, as you’re describing, in making this work in some capacity. 

The byproduct of that is what I’ll call selective reporting or selective demonstration of what’s actually occurring here. I feel like it’s our obligation to paint the full picture and to include the missing half that’s not so sexy, not so enticing, not so convincing that this is what everyone should do.

 

What Will the Legal Psychedelic Landscape Look Like?

[00:25:03] Jimmy: Yeah. I think along with this psychedelic halo effect, I have been talking about something else which you’ve heard mention a couple of times-

That it’s been this undercurrent in what I care about and what I think with psychedelics is that there’s this arms race also to try to figure out and determine who’s going to set the standard, who’s going to set protocols-

Who’s going to set best practices, who’s going to decide who’s allowed to provide services or not. Is it therapists only? Or does it have inclusion for indigenous and cultural practices? 

That’s why you and I care so much about this private use, intentional, like, ceremonial side because we want to stick up for that space. 

I call it the invisible war of psychedelics right now because while everybody is a cheerleader around the latest clinical study, the latest clinical trial, the latest promising research, the latest all of that. 

You then overlook this thing that’s happening behind the scenes around how these services will come to fruition, which, as we’ve looked across the evidence of our country. 

Services like this, when they come online, are offered and available to a certain segment of the population. And likely not as available to other segments of the population. 

You can cut that line however you want, whether it’s a mental health diagnosis or not, whether you have insurance or whether you don’t, whether you are of a certain ethnicity or socioeconomic area. 

It’s just important to highlight to folks that this is all happening in real-time. I want to see in the future, in a couple of years, folks of all different backgrounds having all of the things accessible and available to them. 

And I know that’s very idealistic and somewhat of a far cry, but it also goes hand in hand with this blissful ignorance that these things to pretend that these things aren’t in the psychedelic landscape as well, like all of these power dynamics and all of these exclusionary things.

Nick: And even stuff like facilitator abuse. You don’t see that in documentaries because that’s not sexy or appealing and it’s going to probably inspire people to run the other way than to run towards seeking treatment.

These are all the things that are a very real part of what this emerging industry includes, entails. And if it’s not being reported on or not being included in this holistic picture of what’s happening, it’s not a very fair representation. 

And the reason I’m so passionate about this personally is because this impacts the framework and the perspective that clients come into this work with. And no one likes being on the receiving end of a client being let down. 

But what they’re really let down by is their own expectations. It’s not like assuming there was no abuse or moral-ethical violations perpetuated. 

What they’re really up against is their own expectations and those are directly correlated to the media, the documentary, the TV, the radio, how these are being portrayed.

Jimmy: Yeah. I mean it’s not your fault if you’re vulnerable and desperate and tried to seek all of the services that are available to you and feel like you’re stuck and don’t have a place to turn. I’m not saying that has any malintent. 

I just think that in combination with something that looks really promising and can give you this light at the end of the tunnel and is super sensationalized and view it as this golden ticket to the healing of all of my pain and suffering. 

Then you can see how the juxtaposition of those two things can set up a lot of environments where people can get taken advantage of. Or just not get the right information to decide what’s right for them.

Nick: Exactly. To be clear, we’ve seen people work through their pain and suffering but it is work. It does take time, it does often take multiple dosing sessions-

It does take an energetic investment in a very active healing process and that is not shown in the trajectory of a lot of humans who go through these experiences in media.

Jimmy: It’s not a passive and free ride is what I hear you say. [laughs]

Nick: Yeah. I think that’s the essence of how media portrays it, is like, do a couple of infusions, take a dose or two and you’re going to be better, you know, the studies say so.

Jimmy: Yeah, I get it. My belief is that it’s because psychedelics have this inherent power to challenge things, to challenge beliefs, to challenge systems, to challenge structures of things. 

It’s how it works in our bodies and our mind and our spirit when we take psychedelics. So, the same thing happens with society. 

And so, when you’re trying to plug psychedelics into this society that already exists which depending on the day, even acknowledges whether mental health is a thing or not, you know what I mean?

[laughter]

Jimmy: It’s way easier to plug psychedelics into systems that already exist than it is to have psychedelics be this potentiator to challenge all of those systems.

Nick: Yeah, or to create a new one dedicated for it.

Jimmy: Right. So then it’s like how do I plug psychedelics into existing therapy and mental health? How do I plug psychedelics into existing medical models and support models?

Nick: Yeah, which most Americans already agree are broken.

Jimmy: Right. That’s why I believe that the narrative kind of naturally takes this shape now because it’s easily inserted, it has a lot of these repercussions-

But that’s the fastest way to get psychedelics legalized or support services available or all that stuff, which I get. But support–[crosstalk]

Nick: I want to be clear, we do like that people can see the potential. What I don’t like is that it doesn’t include everything else. [crosstalk]

Jimmy: There’s just more to it.

Nick: Exactly.

Jimmy: There’s just more to it. It’s not this sweet ride and super rosy and all of a sudden everybody’s just going to get all the support and the access that they need to mental health and psychedelic services in five years. It will be a rough road moving forward.

Nick: I actually wouldn’t be surprised if we see some more adverse experiences reported, especially in states like Oregon and Colorado while they’re still trying to figure out how to roll out these state-sanctioned treatment programs. 

I actually wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see some more of that. My hope is that people are able to identify where the pitfalls and the missteps were made as opposed to just demonizing the drug itself because in all of this, the drug itself has never been the issue. 

It’s been the structure, the support, the screening, the facilitator, everything else around it has been the issue. The drug itself just grows on cow dung in nature. That’s not the issue.

Jimmy: Yeah, it’s when the human gets involved is when all the issues arise, right?

Nick: Exactly.

Jimmy: [laughs] I mean my last message for folks as we’re wrapping up here is that from Nick and I’s view, the choice to engage with psychedelics is really important. We call it sacred. 

I also know that there’s people who will just eat a gram of mushrooms and see what happens. I also get that in the name of radical sovereignty, you do you. 

But knowing and the message I want to share with people is that there are risks and context to everything that you choose to do as an adult, that psychedelics are really not for everybody. There are people who are best served by not doing psychedelics.

And that people should proceed with a lot of care and ask questions and have a healthy level of skepticism. Also, have a healthy level of belief and faith and potential that there’s a possibility.

And if you can find that right balance with yourself within your own risk tolerance, and then if you look at something and you’re getting some info from some media and you’re like-

“What’s the bigger picture here? What’s not being shared? What’s not being told?” I think you have a leg up already in trying to engage in anything psychedelic-related.

Nick: Yeah. My parting words of wisdom is just temper your expectations, be realistic, and that means taking into account all the different data points, not just the top 0.1% of treatment outcomes. I hope that helps, I really do. 

I hope that helps everyone navigate this because it is kind of a wacky time and there’s more and more media coming out and it can be challenging to sort through it all. That brings us to the end of our episode for today. 

You can download episodes of the Psychedelic Passage podcast on all major streaming platforms, Apple Podcast, Amazon, Spotify, iHeartRadio or wherever else you choose to stream your podcasts. 

If you like the show, please rate and review us. We really appreciate it, and we look forward to seeing you guys next week.

 

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