People who have taken a psychedelic drug at least once in their lives have significantly less suicidal thinking and are less likely to attempt suicide than the general population, according to a study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
Led by researchers from the University of Alabama, the study used 2001-2004 data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The survey asked if people had ever taken a “classic” psychedelic drug such as peyote, LSD, psilocybin or ayahuasca, and also had them complete the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale, which included questions about suicidal thinking and suicide attempts in the previous year.
Of the 191,382 respondents, 27,235 (13.6%) reported lifetime classic psychedelic use. “(L)ifetime classic psychedelic use was associated with a 19% reduced likelihood of past month psychological distress, a 14% reduced likelihood of past year suicidal thinking, a 29% reduced likelihood of past year suicidal planning, and a 36% reduced likelihood of past year suicide attempt,” the researchers wrote.
These findings contrasted with all other drugs. “(L)ifetime illicit use of all other substances was by and large associated with an increased likelihood of psychological distress and suicidality at or above the trend level,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers acknowledged that a population-level survey “could not control for all possible sources of confounding and therefore we cannot rule out that a shared underlying factor may have contributed to both classic psychedelic use and decreased psychological distress and suicidality.”
Many psychedelic drug users express interests in “mind expansion” and are often motivated by “spiritual” interests or “curiosity,” they noted. These could well be causes of, or results of psychedelic use. However, the researchers added, psychedelic use was also associated with “risky behavior” and other “illicit substance use,” both of which are normally linked to increased suicidality. “The picture is undoubtedly complex.”
The researchers also noted that at an individual level psychedelics “may exacerbate schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders, can be dangerous in hazardous physical environments, and can sometimes elicit feelings of anxiety, fear, panic, and paranoia.” Nevertheless, those facts “failed to obscure the apparent protective effect of classic psychedelic use on psychological distress and suicidality at the population level.”
At the same time, most of the people surveyed had not taken the drugs under safe, controlled clinical conditions, the researchers stated, so it was all the more significant that the drugs seemed to be demonstrating evidence of benefit. “If the results do reflect salubrious effects of classic psychedelic use, these may very well be potentiated in specialized treatment settings designed to maximize safety and efficacy,” they concluded.
Hendricks, Peter S, Christopher B Thorne, C Brendan Clark, David W Coombs, and Matthew W Johnson. “Classic Psychedelic Use Is Associated with Reduced Psychological Distress and Suicidality in the United States Adult Population.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, January 13, 2015. doi:10.1177/0269881114565653. (Abstract)