Psychedelic Drugs Might Eat Away at Suicide Risk

A new survey links psychedelic drugs to less psychological distress, and a reduced risk of suicide.
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A new survey links psychedelic drugs to less psychological distress, and a reduced risk of suicide.
(Photo: agsandrew/Shutterstock)

(Photo: agsandrew/Shutterstock)

Chances are, you had a teacher back in junior high tell you that dropping acid would lead to a bad trip, or lead to flashbacks the rest of your life. Or perhaps you had friends in college eat a tab and spend all day at a hardware store, contemplating the underlying meaning of the houseplant. (True story.) Interesting anecdotes aside, a large new survey indicates that psychedelic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin are actually associated with reduced rates of psychological distress and suicide.

Over the past few decades, there's been growing evidence that psychedelics are not only fairly safe but also potentially valuable for treating a number of mental health conditions. Psilocybin, for example, can have lasting positive effects on mood, and might help patients with advanced-stage cancer manage anxiety in their final days. There's also some evidence that LSD could help treat addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Meanwhile, emerging evidence suggests that psychedelics may help manage certain serotonin receptors in the brain—generally speaking, the same kind of thing antidepressant drugs like Paxil and Zoloft are meant to do.

Suicide, on the other hand, is a leading cause of death in the United States and worldwide, especially among teens and young adults.

The researchers found that having used psychedelic drugs at some point reduced the odds of psychological distress by 19 percent, suicidal thoughts by 14 percent, and suicide attempts by 36 percent.

Building on those observations, Peter Hendricks and colleagues from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Alabama-Birmingham sought to find out more about the mental health effects of psychedelic drugs. Using the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the team looked at drug use, suicidal thoughts, and psychological distress in 191,382 Americans, 27,235 of whom had taken a psychedelic drug at some point in their lives.

Taking into account a variety of suicide risk factors, including age, sex, education, and income, the researchers found that having used psychedelic drugs at some point reduced the odds of psychological distress by 19 percent, suicidal thoughts by 14 percent, and suicide attempts by 36 percent. By contrast, abusing painkillers increased the risk of suicide attempts by about 70 percent.

Not that you should rush out to your local forest for some 'shrooms, though. Apart from the risk of misidentification and poisoning, survey-based research relies on individuals' potentially unreliable reports of their own behavior and can't reveal whether psychedelics actually improve mental health—only that there is some kind of connection.

Still, Hendricks and team write in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, officials need to reconsider the severe restrictions on psychedelic drugs. "The present results reinforce the perspective that the designation of these substances should be reconsidered to allow further scientific inquiry," they write. "Growing evidence including the present research suggests that classic psychedelics may have the potential to alleviate human suffering associated with mental illness. Further rigorous research is warranted to better understand these substances, with the ultimate goal of taking full advantage of their latent therapeutic capacity."

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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