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Debate Over the Use of Apps in Psychedelic Therapy Grows

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With at least one in five Americans said to experience mental illness at least once a year and more than 2.7 million youth suffering from severe major depression, interest in safe and effective mental health treatments is at an all-time high. Initial research has uncovered that psychedelics such as MDMA, psilocybin and ketamine may be able to mitigate the symptoms of conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders.

As such, pharmaceutical companies, institutional investors and billionaires are pouring millions of dollars into the development of psychedelic-assisted therapies.

To ostensibly reduce the burden on healthcare professionals and make psychedelic-assisted therapies more accessible, a slew of tech startups have begun developing apps and all kinds of digital hacks to make psychedelic-assisted therapies more effective. Psychedelic treatments differ from traditional mental health therapies in that they require a trained professional to monitor the patient for several hours, sometimes up to 24 hours, once they are under the influence of a psychedelic. Patients also require additional support before the psychedelic experience to prepare them and afterward to help them integrate the realizations they made during the experience into their lives.

While some in the fledgling psychedelics industry say that such apps are needed to scale up psychedelic treatments and keep them affordable, critics believe these digital hacks will shift the industry away from ensuring patient well-being to making investors happy.

But according to Florian Brand, the CEO of Atai Life Sciences, a Berlin-based firm developing a complementary app, digital hacks can reduce patient reliance on their therapist during the integration phase.

Outside of the psychedelic experience itself, integration is the most crucial stage of psychedelic therapy. While a psychedelic experience can grant the patient deep and profound realizations about their lives and the world around them, these insights are useless unless they are integrated into the patient’s life.

Brand said that the company will use the app to monitor patient mood and biomarkers for weeks or even months after the initial psychedelic therapy session while providing them with content that is tailored for mindfulness and habit reinforcement. He concluded that “technology-assisted psychotherapy” can be used to achieve better and more durable results by making psychedelic therapies scalable.

However, licensed counselor Michelle Baker Jones argues that digital support simply isn’t the same as interacting with a therapist in person. A member of Imperial College London’s Psychedelic Research Team, Jones thinks that removing the relationship aspect from psychedelic therapy makes the treatments less effective.

She notes that early studies into the effectiveness of psychedelics as a mental health treatment often provided participants with up to 50 hours of psychotherapy. Rather than turning to apps, Jones says the better option would be to train more therapists in psychedelic treatment and build community centers to provide people with the relational support they will require after a psychedelic experience.

As the different therapies from startups such as Mind Medicine Inc. (NASDAQ: MNMD) (NEO: MMED) (DE: MMQ) go through the clinical development process and hopefully gain approval, the place of technology in psychotherapy will gradually be defined.

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