How Philanthropy is Driving Innovation in Psychedelics and Mental Health, and Why Policy Must Now Follow

As a child of the 80s who grew up in the “just say no to drugs” era – and actually listened to Nancy Reagan! – never could I have imagined that I would be interviewing two of my health heroes about psychedelics. And yet as I sat on stage with Michael Pollan and Andrew Huberman at the Stanford PACS Philanthropy Innovation Summit, they made a compelling case not just for the promise of psychedelic drugs to address our country’s mental health crisis, but for psychedelics research as a unique and important example of the promise of philanthropy to fuel innovation. Even so, while philanthropy has developed some hopeful proof points for the possibility of psychedelics to address our country’s mental health crisis, it’s time that policymakers pave the way for broader access.

According to Michael Pollan, we are currently in the midst of a “psychedelic renaissance.” While originally a very important part of psychiatry in the late 1950s and 1960s to treat of alcoholism, depression and end of life, policymakers quickly made psychedelic drugs illegal out of fears that taking the drug was causing young men to challenge authority and resist enlisting in the Vietnam War. Over the past twenty years, with the mental health system in crisis due to very little scientific advancement and an increase in mental health issues – mental illness is the leading cause of disability in developed countries, with fifty percent of Americans experiencing mental illness in their lifetimes, and $350 billion spent annually on treating depression in the U.S. and Europe alone – scientists began revisit psychedelics as a treatment tool. 

How do psychedelic drugs help treat mental illness? According to Dr. Huberman, the experience of taking psychedelic drugs like psylocibin or MDMA changes the nervous system to reveal something about a person’s psyche (hence the term “psychedelic”), creating far more communication across areas within the brain and often leading to a healthier mental state. But this new consciousness doesn’t just happen automatically; what’s key to achieving it is the patient “letting go” and mental health researchers still have a lot to learn about how to achieve that. There are also new innovations emerging such as “nonpsychedelic psychedelics” which provide the depressive relief without the hallucinogenic relief, but more research is required to understand whether the experience of the psychedelic journey is important to the improved outcome.

That’s where philanthropy comes in. In a relatively short period of time psychedelic drugs have gone from illicit to mainstream, a revolution in mental health that is being driven by philanthropy. The expansive and rigorous research trials to prove that psychedelics are helpful to address mental health has been supported entirely by private philanthropic dollars, and only recently has the National Institute of Health started to fund this research in small amounts.

Despite its quick rise in popularity, we are still in the very early stages of understanding the potential benefits of psychedelics. As psychedelics are beginning to be approved for legal use, philanthropy will continue to be critical to advancing the movement to leverage these drugs to address mental health issues because government funding remains a sliver of the total need, and the private sector hasn’t figured out a way to make money off of a pill you just take once.

So how can philanthropy continue to advance psychedelic research? 

  1. Basic science research to answer some of the questions about how psychedelics can be most effective;
  2. Training guides to administer these drugs (for example, as MDMA is legalized it is estimated we will need 15,000 mental health professionals to serve as guides to meet the anticipated need); and
  3. Public education to combat some of the misconceptions about these drugs.

According to the Huberman and Pollan, we are on the cusp of something pathbreaking for humanity. As Dr. Huberman pointed out, “Neuroplasticity is the holy grail because we are the only species who can direct our own brain changes so any and all things that can lead to self-directed brain plasticity can bend the arc of evolution.” With existential crises like climate change and threats to global democracies at play, creating human connectivity in the ways that psychedelics can do is more critical now than ever. Philanthropy has an outsized role in supporting this movement to change our minds and change the world.

But philanthropy can’t do it alone. We need more expansive policies help get psychedelics into the hands of those who need them most like veterans, first responders and others struggling with PTSD and depression. Innovative states like Colorado and Oregon are leading the nation by decriminalizing psychedelics, and a similar bill currently sits on the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom in California. These types of policies, if adopted more broadly, have the potential not just to help individuals who are suffering, but to show the power of public-private partnership to address one of the biggest crises facing our world today.