Psychedelic Use Associated with Reductions in Suicidal Tendencies

Rob Wipond
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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)

36 COMMENTS

  1. That MIA would post an article which seems to support the current proposals that psychedelics will be the next “miracle” cure of the psychiatric profession caught me off balance. This seems to support the notion that Nitrous, “shrooms”, special-k and ecstacy are going to be the next great big cure all for anyone who suffers from any malady that falls between the covers of the DSM.
    Having seen what psychiatry has already made the human race suffer in their attempts to make the whole of the human experience an “illness” or “disorder”, I am rather sure that this also will be another disaster in the making. And, if this will be the going new fad masquerading as legitimate “treatment” then we can elevate the local drug dealer to the level of “shrink”? We will sit and debate the dangers of pot and be rather serious about that while this insanity is spread about and that seems ludicrous.

    • Squash, nothing in the article suggests that this is a miracle cure. Neither the study nor the article concern nitrous, ketamine, or MDMA, so I am baffled how you claim that this research “seems to support the notion” that these drugs will be “the next great big cure all.” In fact the study directly contradicts what you’ve said — researchers concluded that use “of all other substances” — i.e. non-classic-psychedelics — “was by and large associated with an increased likelihood of psychological distress and suicidality at or above the trend level”.

      You claim that this medical research is “insanity” and a “fad masquerading as legitimate ‘treatment'”. Yet studies increasingly show that LSD and psilocybin, in conjunction with psychotherapy, are effective treatments for real disorders — anxiety in people dying from cancer, alcoholism, and tobacco addiction to name a few. Do you have any actual objections to the methodology of the studies? What makes their findings invalid?

      You also ask, in dramatic hyperbole, whether psychedelic medicines “elevate the local drug dealer to the level of ‘shrink'”. You do realize, I hope, that many drugs are used both medically and recreationally? Ketamine, heroin, cocaine, and cannabis all have legitimate medical applications — do you think this “elevates” all street dealers into doctors, or in any way diminishes the medical potential of these drugs?

      What’s ‘ludicrous’ is how quickly people will turn to obsolete prejudices and stigmas when evaluating the potential of these drugs.

        • Yes, I’ll admit that we are both biased, and I don’t expect either of us to change the other’s mind. But my username does not diminish the substance of my objections, of which you have not responded to a single one.

          As for what side I’m on, I side with the evidence. Do you have any actual objections to the study, which demonstrates an apparent protective link between psychedelics and suicide? What makes psychedelic medicines illegitimate in your eyes?

          I don’t think the article author, nor the researchers at UAB, are trying to characterize these drugs as a miracle cure.

          • “which demonstrates an apparent protective link between psychedelics and suicide”
            It does not. It only shows a correlation which may or may not be due to a protective effect. Or it may well be that people who experiment with psychodelics are less likely to be suicidal to begin with for other reasons. The problem is that psychiatry + pharma are likely to take these murky observations and turn them into “LSD (or rather some patentable derivative) prevents suicide by fixing the chemical imbalance” or other bs like that and market it to everyone regardless of risk, need or any real or not efficacy.
            In the end people don’t kill themselves because thy lack neurotransmitters – they kill themselves because they can’t stand their lives usually because of real reasons. Drugs, as much as I am for their legalization, don’t fix societal problems or cure human condition.

      • I too have “tripped the light fantastic” in my youth, but many times with products laced with things (PCP for example). It was truly mind expanding and I didn’t suffer any long term consequences. But, I did meet a few people who tripped and never quite made it back.
        The crime in psychiatry is they take scant evidence and experiment on people to establish the validity of their theories. This is evident in the barbaric and non-effective treatments as blood letting and psycho-surgery. And, anyone who suffers from it is simply written off as collateral damage.

        • Blood-letting was dismissed as unscientific, ineffective, and harmful by the end of the nineteenth century. How does this obsolete ‘treatment’ reflect in any way on modern psychiatry? If anything its obsolescence shows that we are willing to abandon “barbaric and non-effective treatments,” no?

      • Thanks, Psychedelic Frontier: Indeed, what’s a bad trip? If you’re unhappy with the results of an experience, you’re unhappy with your mind. But don’t take drugs in ignorance and don’t give yourself good reason for disliking your mind by giving yourself brain damage. For instance, avoid flooding your skull with dopamine. Above all, don’t put yourself in the position of getting forced to take drugs if you can help it.

  2. I was surprised by this too. I know Mad in America is pro-science and this comes from a scientific journal, but the study isn’t convincing. Much more research needs to be done for me to believe that psychedelics are in any way helpful. Shrooms maybe, but LSD?

    When you get LSD on the street there are different qualities, first of all.

    I had an absolutely horrendous experience on LSD in high school. Panic, social anxiety, paranoia. Later on in college I suffered serious depression, social anxiety. I wonder whether it was linked to that bad LSD experience.

    I am a huge fan of Mad in AMerica, but not LSD.

    I think we’d all be a lot healthier if we opted for more natural choices.

    • I have to say that I find the knee-jerk reactions here against psychedelics to be remarkably similar to the broader social phobia of mental distress and especially psychosis. It can be scary and even dangerous if not handled properly so, despite the potential for growth and enlightenment and creativity, let’s…run away from it, stomp on it, suppress it, and demonize the people who are not afraid of it? Psychedelics are a way of exploring the mind in all its depth and beauty and yes, sometimes, craziness. (As in Trungpa Rinpoches “crazy wisdom”) These are our minds; do we really want to suppress them and run away from them the way today’s psychiatrists and pharmacologists want us to?

      I think it’s very important to point out that the physiological effects of psychedelics are very minimal and last for only a few hours. They have literally no addictive potential, and in fact are anti-addictive in that they help people connect with others and with higher powers and so help lessen addictive drives. It is hardly an accident that Bill Wilson tried to incorporate LSD, when it was still legal, into the treatment program of AA, or that Johns Hopkins researchers have recently gotten an over 80% success rate using psilocybin to help people stop smoking.

      Please note that these substances are in no way a product of the psychatric or pharmaceutical industries. I see them as entirely subversive in relation to those entities. They are anything but modern, but rather have been a cornerstone of healing and spiritual awakening among indigenous peoples and some civilizations for several thousand years. (Yes, LSD excepted; it is newer and synthetic, but quite similar to psilocybin, mescalin, ayahuasca, etc.)

      More specifically, in response to drudo, above: First, I would suggest that LSD and psilocybin mushrooms are very similar in the quality range of experiences they tend to bring about. (There is no need to take my word for it, just poke around a little on the internet, or ask people.) Both are also highly variable, depending on how one uses them.

      Second, and following from that, is it possible that one person’s negative experience, had when using (I am going to assume…I think not unreasonably) the substances without care and perhaps even recklessly, is not indicative of the full range of possibilities? Is it possible that those of us who have had difficult experiences in the realm of the psyche could find a way to remain open to the authentic experiences of others?

    • Drudo, very sorry to hear you had a bad experience, especially if it may have been linked to later mental health issues.

      I’d like to point out that ‘natural’ is no guarantee of ‘good,’ and to assume otherwise is a logical error called the “Appeal to Nature.” Hemlock, for instance, is totally natural, but I’d much sooner consume a sheet of man-made LSD than a cup of hemlock tea. Many of our best medicines are synthetic, and we would not be healthier if we went without them.

      If we follow the evidence, rather than our prejudice, it is not at all clear that psilocybin is superior to LSD in efficacy or safety. Indeed, they’re both very safe when taken in a controlled set and setting, and, from preliminary studies, appear to be remarkably effective at relieving a variety of very treatment-resistant mental issues.

      But the research is just getting started (again, after a long hiatus). I agree that much more research needs to be done before psychedelic-assisted therapy is accepted into mainstream medicine.

  3. ” Psychedelics are a way of exploring the mind in all its depth and beauty and yes, sometimes, craziness. (As in Trungpa Rinpoches “crazy wisdom”) These are our minds; do we really want to suppress them and run away from them the way today’s psychiatrists and pharmacologists want us to?”

    It is also true that pot is used for the same reason with a much milder effect that peyote buttons for example.

    To each their own. If you believe this is adequate, then do it. I would prefer to accomplish the same process through meditation. Others have different ways. It’s not about what can be useful, it’s about those that likely wont be offered a choice in the matter.

    • Yes, I couldn’t agree more on that last. And did not mean to suggest above that simply not using psychedelics in any way “suppresses” one’s own or anyone else’s mind; I think what I meant to say was that passing judgement may be a move in that direction, and prohibiting others definitely is. I also don’t suggest that they are THE solution, or always a good thing. I think they can be very interesting and potentially very helpful and that people should have freedom over their own pscho-spiritual explorations.

    • “It’s not about what can be useful…”
      For me, and for people in need of more effective treatments than what is currently available, it is very much about what can be useful. That is the whole point of these studies — to determine new, useful treatments for intractable conditions suffered by millions.

      “it’s about those that likely wont be offered a choice in the matter.”
      I don’t think anyone here advocates for administering psychedelics to people without their consent! I wholly agree that that would be a terrible idea.

      • Maybe but I’ve just pictured how coercive psychiatry could incorporate “psychodelic therapy” to their framework: forced bad LSD trips while strapped to the bed in restraints. I’m sure they can turn anything into a nightmare. Honestly, that would not surprise me at all given their track record.

        • Hi B – In case you don’t get updates, why don’t you re-visit the article about Most People Who Use Drugs Don’t Get Addicted–and Why That’s Important? I understand your perspective and didn’t see that it was you there. There are interesting things left to say.

          You have rational concerns about abusive treatment, and care about opening your mind.
          Just keep opening it and things.

  4. I think the issue here should be less whether psychedelics may have some potentially beneficial effects on certain people under certain conditions, but rather on whether psychiatry will attempt to co-opt this possibility and turn it into yet another life-threatening product promotion to make bunches of money while continuing to deny the reality of oppression and abuse that lies behind most emotional suffering, and especially behind most suicidal thinking and behavior. I totally support people being free to seek spiritual enlightenment by whatever means make sense to them, but I don’t support psychiatrists or anyone else repurposing such drugs as “medical treatment” for suicidality. I agree with commentors who see this as a potentially dangerous line of research, not because I think LSD or psychedelics are inherently bad or dangerous, but because I think the current tenets of psychiatry are dangerous and will certainly be able to generate dangerous outcomes out of any potential good that might come out of psychedelic use.

    — Steve

    • It’s worth noting that all the classic psychedelics being studied — LSD, DMT, peyote, and psilocybin — are too old to be patented. Without a patent, there is very little money to be made by Big Pharma. That’s why these kinds of studies, including the above, have been funded by pharmaceutical companies, but primarily by non-profits and universities.

      “I don’t support psychiatrists or anyone else repurposing such drugs as ‘medical treatment’ for suicidality.” Suppose that more studies are completed in the future, and the effectiveness of these drugs for treating depression, addiction, and anxiety becomes well-established. In that case, would you support the ability of individuals to seek out and receive psychedelic-assisted therapy? Or do you think it should be banned altogether?

      I agree with you that psychedelics should not be pushed on any and everyone by psychiatrists. We are most certainly over-prescribed currently, and I would hate to see these substance thoughtlessly administered to people who didn’t need them, didn’t understand them, or weren’t ready for the experience.

      • Oh, don’t assume they can’t get patents. They’ll come up with a new name and a new time-released dispersal method or claim that it’s for a new indication, and they will be able to patent it. Zyban happened when Wellbutrin’s patent ran out, and it’s exactly the same stuff, except being repurposed as a smoking cessation drug.

        Again, if people find this helpful, it is up to them to decide to use it. I’m glad that for now it’s not academic psychiatry doing the research, but the concept unfortunately reinforces the “chemical cure for a chemical imbalance” theories that psychiatry is based on. I am more of a Moncriefian regarding drugs – they have effects that people may find helpful, and if so, people can use them, but they aren’t treating “mental illnesses” unless we have objective evidence of a physiological anomaly that can be tested both before and after treatment. As an example, alcohol is perhaps the best antianxiety agent available, and it’s available at a low cost at your local bar or grocery store. People who feel tense have used it for time immemorial to relax, and I have no difficulty with that. (Of course, dosage control can be a bit of an issue…) But when someone starts telling me that alcohol is a “treatment” for an “anxiety disorder,” I would draw the line. It’s just a drug that makes you feel better temporarily. The psych drugs are the same.

        So if you can figure out a way to divorce it from “mental health treatment,” I’d be on board with the experiment. I just worry that it will be another opportunity to blame distressed and suicidal people for suffering in a society where suffering is the common outcome of the bizarre ways in which we’re supposed to live.

        —- Steve

        • Steve, very much appreciate your perspective on this. Although I should point out that with psilocybin and LSD, and also MDMA, the idea is to have between one and four dosed session and that’s it. They are completely unlike existing psychiatric medications in that regard.

          That’s another reason Big Pharma isn’t pursuing them — these drugs compete with highly profitable medications, like antidepressants, that must be taken regularly. Pharmaceutical corporations have nothing to gain from drugs that are effective with one or two doses, even if they did find a way to tweak the compounds or patent an extended-release formulation.

          • Benzos are not supposed to be prescribed for more than 2-4 weeks. Guess what the practice is. There is no thing they can’t corrupt.

        • Great point again. Actually alcohol is a great treatment for my chronic stress-induced back pain – everytime I drink a glass or two I sleep like a baby with no problems from my rigid muscles. Does this mean doctors should prescribe alcohol for back pain as medicine to treat muscle rigidity? I am aware alcohol is a drug which has some positive and negative effects and I prefer to use other means of relaxing my muscles (exercise being the most helpful) but would I be careful enough was it prescribed as a medicine to be taken daily in ever increasing amounts? As Dr Healy says nowadays doctors can’t be trusted with handling the drugs responsibly and psychiatric drugs are the worst of them all.

          • While I agree completely on not trusting (most) psychiatrists in this respect, I don’t get the alcohol comparison. Certainly a little alcohol can help relieve stress, but it is highly addictive and produces more violence than just about anything out there, not to mention a host of health problems, when it is overused. Like prescription psychotropics, it suppresses feeling and awareness; the whole pint is to numb you out; it is a drug of repression, or you might say, violence to self, as well as sometimes violence to others. Psychedelics share none of those characteristics. They consistently reduce addictive tendencies, cannot be used continuously because tolerance builds quickly, tend to increase sensitivity, awareness, and self-knowledge, and simply don’t cause any health problems.

          • “Like prescription psychotropics, it suppresses feeling and awareness”
            No, for me it’s not. As most psychoactive substances it has different action on different people in different circumstances. Making blanket statements about how these drugs work on people in terms of emotion and cognition is almost always a sin of generalization, often from sample with n=1.

            “Psychedelics share none of those characteristics.”
            Are you suggesting they are wonder drugs which have no serious side effects? I doubt it. I have a problem with selling drugs as solution to life problems and human condition.

      • On the question of alcohol, above, I just stumbled on a journal article by some public health and policy people that rates the harms of various drugs, both to individuals using them and to others. (http://www.sg.unimaas.nl/_OLD/oudelezingen/dddsd.pdf) They found alcohol to be, by a large margin, the most harmful of twenty drugs, and ecstacy, LSD, and psilocybin mushrooms to be three of the four least dangerous. By their rating scale, alcohol comes out between eight and twelve times more harmful than psychedelics. Alcohol is also seen by them (I would think correctly) as especially harmful to people other than the actual user, whereas the minor harm from psychedelics is almost entirely to the person who’s made the choice to use them. Whether it’ll make much difference to this discussion…maybe not, but it seems worth a look to me.

        Maybe more important, I bet we could all agree that the biggest problem is that prescription psychotropics were not considered. No doubt they’d be towards the top of the list!

  5. Steve, I think this is a really important question–regarding what use they may be put to. One of my concerns, actually, with psychedelics, is that, precisely because they can be helpful in freeing up the self-healing, self-organizing potential of the psyche, there is sometimes the idea that you just need to let ‘er rip and all will be well. This does not fit my experience and observations of the psyche. As some Indian guru is supposed to have said, “A fool going in, a fool coming out.” Or more to the point, if psychedelics are embedded in a superficial culture or group dynamic, or if the work is not well prepared for or guided by someone who is not wise and experienced, I think there is often a sense, because they are so powerful and the experiences so amazing, that you can skip past the detail and the messiness of human psychology and move directly to some sort of cosmic enlightenment. I’m exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist. This opens the door wide to delusion and narcissism; and if that is combined with an evangelical fervor…look out.

    Alternatively, they also have the potential to help people see, feel, and work constructively with the “reality of oppression and abuse that lies behind most emotional suffering” that you speak of. I think–actually, I am quite certain–that if these substances are used carefully and wisely, and ideally in conjunction with really good, humane therapy or peer support, they can be remarkably helpful in this regard for many (not all) people. It is in that sense that I feel they have the potential to be hugely valuable from a humane perspective that resists the psychiatric paradigm that most of us writing here so appropriately and vehemently object to. Which makes your question all the more important.

    • A little further on this theme, there’s a related socio-cultural question. There’s an interesting dissertation from a few years ago–not recalling the author right off–that argues that the current emphasis on formal research and “therapeutic” uses (i.e., the treatment of “pathologies”) puts us on a trajectory that will box these substances in and end up reinforcing the normalizing modernist straightjacket rather than subverting it. So, rather than being open tools for creativity, self-realization, spiritual growth, etc. (all of which, if achieved in any serious way, are highly subversive in our society), they become, if only available to “treat” things like “depression,” “PTSD,” etc., one more means of keeping us all happy little campers in productive, capitalist cubicles. (Okay, I haven’t actually read the dissertation, but that was my sense of the gist of it.) I don’t think it’s as simple as that, but there’s a potential trajectory there that’s troubling.

      I think it’s fairly safe to say that most people involved with the research, as well as most people at MAPS, which is a key funder of research, and advocate, would prefer to see them available more broadly. But there is something of a tightrope to walk here, and potentially a devil’s bargain. I think many people hope it will follow the medical marijuana trajectory, where medical uses gradually soften the stigma and misunderstandings around the substances. Personally, I don’t like pot at all; just so you know I’m not a druggy type. 😉

        • See, I knew we would agree. 🙂

          I was going to say: then the question becomes whether increasing understanding is a good or bad thing. But I think you’re right that (if I’m reading you correctly) that IS too simplistic, since knowledge is not neutral–it all depends on how it’s derived (how a question is asked can point you in particular, often political, directions) and what it’s used for. While I really do share your concerns about the psych industry, I am reassured here by a few things. 1, The researchers and funders involved are mostly not in the psychiatry mold at all; I have found them to be very humane and thoughtful and often with a certain degree of anti-establishment leanings, often in line with the views of many who visit this site. 2, The substances really are, at least in our current legal framework, not patentable. I suppose it’s possible that could change, but if things shift to that degree I think we’ll have bigger things to worry about; if they can patent wild mushrooms, I fear air and water would be not far behind. 3. It’s in the very nature of these medicines that they are not addictive or dependence-forming; they literally don’t work if you take them continuously, and work best if used only occasionally. 4. Relatedly, they are entirely at odds with the whole “chemical imbalance” baloney.

          But I really do agree that paradigm change is the goal.

          Actually, it’s just occuring to me that the earlier history of this stuff may argue in favor of the “careful research” strategy with psychedelics. In the 50s and early 60s there were two tracks. Therapists were using psychedelics and MDMA as adjuncts and finding them quite helpful, and there was some research documenting that. But the CIA and the army were also conducting research on how to either use them against foreign enemies (to drive them nuts on the battlefield) or for things like mind control, truth syrums, interrogations, etc. These guys focused on the psychotomimetic hypothesis, which was basically used to try to drive people crazy. There were some pretty awful experiments in that regard. When things hit the fan with cultural upheaval in the 60s, the media of course went to the well-funded and “respected” university researchers that had been funded by the CIA, and the humane therapeutic uses were largely overlooked. And that’s a large part of how we got the stigma and a certain hysteria surrounding psychedelics.

          So, while I don’t know exactly how this resurgence in research will turn out, and I do have my concerns, as above, to me it seems like a good middle ground between that really awful CIA business and Timothy Leary telling everyone and his brother to run out and go trippin’.

          And lastly, I think it’s also worth considering that the proposed uses are not just for things like depression or generalized anxiety. Psilosybin appears to be the only reliable thing that cures cluster headaches, which I gather are pretty awful, quite a lot worse than migraines. People literally kill themselves from the pain, so I that seems to me a pretty good use. Then MDMA–as someone above said, two or three MDMA-facilitated psychotherapy sessions–is showing really remarkable promise with severe, treatment-resistant PTSD among veterans and abuse survivors. I suppose my question would be, are there uses like that that would seem acceptable to those who are concerned with psychedelics? (MDMA is not a true psychedelic, and with very little potential for bad experiences, but still in the same ballpark.)

          • Bunny– Did you know that Ken Kesey actually got the most people to turn on? Also, although my son stole the book in one of numerous spates of juvenile delinquency, I had authoritative comparitive commentary on four expermental psych drugs from sixites research in the area. Four drugs were examined, two with qualified quasi-praise, in the vein of “time for more research”. Two were reviewed in the same depth and at the same length, and dismissed with the statement that “people who were given these substances have brain damage” (my paraphrase from memory). One of these compounds was ecstasy. It seems funny that the drug was reintroduced without some revelation of its history. What’s the difference? Lower doses? Different chemistry?

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