We ask for a moment of your time as we collectively face the fear and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic offers us a disturbing view into the broken nature of our political, economic, and healthcare systems—systems which have failed the vast majority of us. 

But it also offers us a hopeful view into some of the very best of humanity and those who are putting their lives on the line: healthcare workers healing and comforting the sick, food workers and truck drivers providing communities with basic necessities, and grade school teachers distributing food to hungry children and their families. 

As we collectively practice social isolation, it highlights the social alienation of late capitalism and an exploding mental health epidemic that psychedelics alone cannot solve.

[This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Click here to read part 1. Click here to read part 2.]

On the one hand, psychedelics hold promise for personal healing and transformative individual change, and when psychedelics are eventually accepted by mainstream medicine, they will likely impact mental health outcomes for the better. But the broken systems highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic offer insight into why mental health has reached epidemic proportions in the first place. Psychedelics may very well be our best pharmaceutical option to manage the mental health symptoms of our social relations, but a cure will not be possible without systemic socioeconomic change. In the United States, medicare for all and universal basic income would be a start. 

As we navigate this challenging social trip in its many forms, we have a real opportunity to examine the systemic nature of our predicament and participate in the ongoing recreation of our social relations. Now is the time for us to build foundations rooted in solidarity and mutual aid, to come together with others in order to address our material conditions, both in this moment and as we move into the future.

Because there is no going back.

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During this pandemic, two major contributors to the mental health epidemic are staring us in the face: wealth and health inequality. Under capitalism and the dominant culture—which includes white supremacy, patriarchy, and militarism—wealth and health inequalities perpetuate traumas that frequently manifest in treatment-resistant mental illnesses.

A meta-analysis in Clinical Psychology Review showed a statistically significant relationship between debt, mental health, and suicide attempts and completions. Those who have died by suicide were eight times more likely to be in debt, and those with depression are almost three times more likely to be in debt. Debt-related suicides are a global problem that has reached epidemic proportions. Indebted Indian farmers offer just one example.

The correlation between mental health and debt presents bleak prospects: the average American is $38,000 in debt and the average millennial, aged 25-34, is $42,000 in debt—exceedingly worse than their parents’ generation. Moreover, mainstream discourse has fixated on “health insurance” rather than “healthcare” and even then, 87 million Americans are uninsured, underinsured, or have experienced a gap in insurance coverage. Additionally, 70% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, while 45% have none. Finally, since 2000 suicide has skyrocketed. Austerity—the active assault on social safety-nets specifically justified by debt-narratives—quite literally kills.

In this context, the story that psychedelic medicalization will revolutionize mental health in the absence of socioeconomic change is nothing more than a persistent hallucination.

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Holistic views of health must include the economic forces that negatively impact both physical and mental health. If we fail to examine the root causes of our healthcare crisis, we will find ourselves trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle that manages symptoms at the expense of a cure…while investors profit off of the causes. 

The people behind the two largest corporations in the emerging field of psychedelic pharmaceuticals (ATAI Life Sciences and COMPASS Pathways) have stated their desire to end the mental health crisis. But despite giving lip service to mental health as an aesthetic, they have profited from their complicity in the failures of capitalism. 

The systemic problems of capitalism that have become so painfully apparent during the pandemic are the underlying causes of the mental health crisis. Ultimately, psychedelic providers who fail to acknowledge the socioeconomic determinants of health cannot effectively treat their patients. Without engaging the root causes of patient illness, psychedelic healthcare will be limited to palliative treatments rather than curative therapies. COVID-19 emphasizes the fallacy of pursuing individualized solutions within a widespread crisis.

As the coronavirus pandemic exposes the failures of this neoliberal ideology on a global scale, psychedelic capitalists have offered revealing insights into their dependence on neoliberalism and related ideologies.

Consider what this means for the future of psychedelic healthcare.

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Consider Christian Angermayer. He is the biggest individual for-profit investor in psychedelic pharmaceuticals and the founder of ATAI Life Sciences, which is the largest minority shareholder in COMPASS Pathways.

While ATAI’s stated mission is to “ultimately cure mental health disorders,” Angermayer serves on the Presidential Advisory Council to Paul Kagame, the authoritarian ruler of Rwanda, whose political opponents have been murdered and disappeared, and under whose rule Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali has forcibly removed “undesirables”—the poor, sex workers, street vendors—to detention centers, according to Human Rights Watch. Kagame has been described by New York Times Magazine as “The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman.” 

Additionally, Angermayer’s calls for an end to social distancing (as early as March 25th) evidence a prioritization of “economic health” over public health. These perspectives are in line with those of the ruling class more generally and have been increasingly rejected, condemned, and denounced as homicidal.

Consider George Goldsmith of COMPASS Pathways. His previous company was Tapestry Networks, a boutique firm that facilitates regulatory capture, or the revolving door of executives, lobbyists, and regulators. They euphemistically describe themselves as bringing “leaders together to explore productive, new ways to address critical challenges in corporate governance, financial services, and healthcare.” 

At Tapestry, some of Goldsmith’s efforts included rehabilitating the image of the banking sector after the 2008 financial crash, attempting to make fracking more palatable by downplaying its inherent health and ecological dangers, and hosting healthcare summits sponsored by big pharma companies that were later implicated in an FDA scandal.

In a Harvard Business School case study, Tapestry was described as facing “lingering questions about…legitimacy and whether they facilitated greater ‘coziness’ between regulators and the regulated.” One executive told the authors that Tapestry appeared “more focused on the industry rather than on the public interest per se,” while the authors also raised a question about ethics: “Was Tapestry’s basic model—of conducting private, off-the-record conversations between industry heavy hitters and regulators—fundamentally legitimate, or was it contrary to the ideals of the democratic process?” Prior to Tapestry, Goldsmith was a senior advisor at McKinsey and Company.

Please, consider Peter Thiel. He’s the Chairman of surveillance firm Palantir Technologies, the person who financed the destruction of Gawker, and an investor in COMPASS, ATAI, and Mindbloom. While Thiel’s list of antisocial and racist behaviors is too long to detail here (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…), using surveillance technology to round up and deport brown people, and supporting apartheid should cause alarm. 

In response to the public criticism they’ve received from working with Thiel, COMPASS co-founder Katya Malievskaia told Wired, “We don’t screen investors based on their political convictions or what skeletons they have in their closets. It’s an equal-opportunity investment.”

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COVID-19 has laid bare the fundamental problems with entrusting public health to capitalists. Corporate actors have made it clear that their endgame is not to ameliorate human suffering, but to accrue money, status, and power. However, this logic is a recent development within the fields of psychedelic research; it doesn’t have to be this way. The vast majority of you, psychedelic researchers, entered the field with sincere intentions to help humanity. 

We must identify the root causes of suffering if we’re to mitigate their harms. This means pursuing an intersectional approach to examining the systems in which we live—systems that have largely ground to a halt in the face of pandemic. Conventional wisdom claims that incremental change is the only option, but responses to the coronavirus have demonstrated that bold, rapid change for the collective good is not just possible—it’s practically at our fingertips. 

If we ignore the patterns of unethical behavior by these psychedelic capitalists out of service to some future, imagined “good,” we discount real-world suffering for the silver-tongued promises of professional hustlers. We acknowledge that this complicates rapid institutional timelines for increasing access to some drugs for some people via psychedelic medicalization, but as the pandemic reveals, without structural change we will reproduce the shortcomings of the current system.

Psychedelics have catalyzed novel approaches to systems thinking for generations. Whether these insights have inspired radical political action, sublime spiritual insight, or offered glimpses into technologies (like polymerase chain reaction) that are actively helping humanity confront the coronavirus pandemic, psychedelic experiences can contribute to the betterment of humanity. This outcome isn’t a given, which is why we’ve written this letter to you. In a very real way, you hold the future of these tools in your hands. 

So, which side are you on?