May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and with psychedelics having a renaissance of sorts, it’s the perfect time to pause and consider what our industry might expect from the increased research exploring the therapeutic potential of substances like Psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA. This research has been driven in part by pioneering work by organisations like MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), which was founded in 1986 by Rick Doblin with the aim of making psychedelics and marijuana legally available for prescription by trained therapists. 

In 2021, approximately 280 million people worldwide suffered from depression, making it one of the leading causes of disability globally according to the World Health Organisation. Psychedelics offer a potential solution to a global problem, with a growing body of evidence suggesting that they are effective in treating mental health disorders. 

A number of high-profile clinical trials are currently underway exploring the use of psychedelics in the treatment of mental health disorders. In the UK, experiments are taking place at Imperial College London and University College London, both of which have been granted licenses by the Home Office to conduct research into psychedelics. These trials could potentially lead to psychedelics being approved as treatments for mental health disorders in the UK and other countries.  

Big pharma is starting to take notice of the potential of psychedelics as treatments for mental health disorders. In August 2020, the FDA approved Johnson and Johnson’s supplemental new drug application (sNDA) for SPRAVATO® (esketamine) CIII nasal spray, which when taken with an oral antidepressant, helps treat patients with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).

Shortly after Johnson & Johnson’s FDA approval, a group of European investors got together for the largest-ever private financing round for a psychedelic medicine, for a biotech company, Atai Life Sciences. Peter Thiel’s backed psychedelic start-up, Atai is the third psychedelic biotech to go public in the U.S., following in the footsteps of MindMed, and Compass Pathways. Atai is working on shorter-acting psychedelics, which could lessen treatment time for patients and potentially deliver the benefits of psychedelics without their hallucinogenic effects.   

This represents a significant investment by major pharmaceutical companies in the psychedelics space and suggests that big pharma is taking psychedelics seriously as a potential treatment for mental health disorders.  

The rise in interest in psychedelics as a treatment for mental health disorders could potentially lead to a disruption of traditional business models for big pharma companies, from the way the treatments are administered, to the way they are prescribed, to the way they are priced.  

What should big pharma be doing?  

Big pharma companies need to be prepared for the potential disruption that psychedelics could cause to their business models. They should monitor the progress of clinical trials and research into psychedelics, and be ready to adapt their business models if further psychedelics are approved as treatments for mental health disorders.  

 Monitor progress. 

  • Pharma should be monitoring clinical trials and research developments within the psychedelic space and be prepared to adapt their business models if further treatments are approved for use.  

Consider investing. 

  • Pharma companies should consider investing in psychedelics research and development, to stay ahead of the curve and maintain a competitive edge.  

Psychedelic-assisted therapy could represent a paradigm shift in the way we treat mental health disorders. In contrast to traditional pharmaceutical treatments, psychedelics offer the potential for a more personalized and tailored approach to therapy, with the added benefit of being much less expensive, and therefore, more accessible to those who suffer from certain mental health disorders. Psychedelics could be used in conjunction with other therapies, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, to provide a more comprehensive treatment approach.  

What does this mean for healthcare communicators and our clients? 

As healthcare communicators, we need to be aware of the potential implications that psychedelics could have for our clients in the pharmaceutical industry. We should monitor the progress of clinical trials and research into psychedelics, and be prepared to adapt our communications strategies if further psychedelics are approved as treatments for mental health disorders.  

In addition, we should consider how our clients might be affected by the rise in interest in psychedelics and be ready to provide them with counsel on how to best navigate this new landscape.  

Psychedelic-assisted therapy represents a potential paradigm shift in the way we treat mental health disorders in the future, and the rise in interest in psychedelics is reflective of this disruptive force that big pharma needs to take seriously.  


About the Author:

Amit leads Syneos Health’s European Insights offering. He has worked in consumer and B2B insights over the past 8 years, with 3 years in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. He has worked across a range of indications delivering patient and physician focussed research. Amit holds an MSc in Behavioural Science - his passion lies in understanding the complexities of human behaviour, both in general, and in the context of healthcare.​