Among the numerous personal admissions, the focus on his use of psilocybin and ayahuasca reveal public attitude toward them.
Days before “Spare” even hit global bookshelves, headlines began to unfurl at a furious pace. The unflinching new memoir from Prince Harry reportedly covers a gamut of topics, from a physical altercation he had with his brother, Prince William, to his feelings about his stepmother, Queen Consort Camilla Bowles (spoiler: he does not feel very good at all).
But among the many eye-popping revelations (so many, in fact, that “Spare” has spurred accusations of royal TMI), it’s the prince’s admission that he’s used psychedelics for mental health treatment that has garnered an outsized degree of attention. In a 60 Minutes interview he did to promote his book, he told Anderson Cooper about the impact that compounds like psilocybin and ayahuasca had on his heart and mind.
“They cleared the windscreen, the misery of loss,” he said. “They cleared away this idea that I had in my head that I needed to cry to prove to my mother that I missed her when in fact, all she wanted was for me to be happy.
“Doing it with the right people, if you are suffering from a great amount of loss, grief or trauma, then these things have a way of working as medicine.”
Harry and William’s mother, Princess Diana of Wales, died in 1997 in a car chase by paparazzi that was caught on camera and subsequently seen around the world. In his interview with Cooper, Harry described the profound degree of grief he carried over the loss of his mother, and how he self-medicated and coped over the years.
Following the interview, media outlets immediately seized upon his mention of psychedelics. Predictably, they ran the gamut from salacious (Daily Mail) to science-focused (New York Times) to the basic (Entertainment Weekly) to the newsy (Forbes). Taken together, the coverage says more about public perception of psychedelics as mental health treatment than the ex-Royal’s use of it.
In recent years, psychedelics like ayahuasca, ketamine and psilocybin—the hallucinogenic compound in so-called “magic” mushrooms—have begun to emerge from their underground status in therapeutic settings. None of the chemicals are new; ketamine, in fact, has long been legal for use as a sedative in the United States. But it’s only amid a growing body of research and an increasing push for legalization that the drugs are seeping into the mainstream.
In 2020, Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize psilocybin and legalize it for use in mental health treatment. In 2022, Colorado followed suit. Elsewhere, activists, patient care advocates and lawmakers are working on similar bills from Virginia to Connecticut and Montana to Illinois. And in places like New York and Los Angeles, off-label ketamine clinics are popping up, as are mail-order ketamine companies like Joyous and Mindbloom.
For organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is perhaps the oldest psychedelic research and advocacy group in the U.S., this is all good news.
“I do feel like there is this new openness to it,” Natalie Ginsberg, Global Impact Officer for MAPS, told Terra in a recent interview about the cultural sea change around psychedelics. “Every therapist now needs to educate themselves because their clients are all asking about it.”
The therapists who administer psychedelics in secret and companies that are capitalizing on the growing interest in them tend to focus on patients who have been treatment-resistant: which is to say, traditional antidepressants, talk therapy and other accepted (and legal) modalities haven’t worked. For people suffering with mental health issues like depression, PTSD and trauma, access to psychedelics has also been a gift.
Aubree N., a Los Angeles-based writer who tried ketamine at home, has had Prince Harry-like results (minus the national interviews and multimillion-dollar book deal). “I don’t think there’s any downside,” she said, of trying the psychedelic. “I saw improvement within the first day. So why wouldn’t you try it?”
The response to the Duke of Sussex, however, suggests a wider public perception about them that’s still in a nascent phase of full acceptance.
At least one source injected some gravity into the royal psychedelic maelstrom. “Openness [from hallucinogens] appears to be good,” Dr. Matthew Johnson, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, told DailyMail.com. “But there can be too much openness…it can cause manic phases.” Johns Hopkins is one of the leaders in researching the impact of psychedelics on conditions like PTSD.
Johnson agreed that treatment with substances like psilocybin can spur reconnection with loved ones. “But,” he added, “some people go the wrong direction with it.” That can lead to deeper resentment (and, perhaps, more salacious memoirs.).
The caution and mixed messages regarding psychedelics for mental health treatment may be in part because the science on their long-term effects is still emerging. Add to that the lack of standards of care with the substances, and it’s a perfect storm of mixed results and a burgeoning industry ripe for exploitation. Publications like STAT News have reported on the spectrum of impact and experiences: both the regulatory Wild West that’s allowed an investment boom in the industry and the kind of lifelines that they can offer people who have tried everything else.
Other outlets, meanwhile, have been overtly laudatory of the prince’s admission. In their coverage of Harry’s 60 Minutes appearance, Mic, an American digital publication, called Harry “the New Face of Psychedelic Mental Health Treatment.”
With just two states so far embracing psychedelics and grappling with implementation, their proclamation may be premature. But in a year or two (or three or four), as the substances slowly make their way into legally-sanctioned spaces, the Duke may indeed have a new title to add to his collection. And, perhaps, yet another business opportunity.