A friend of mine is having a Pink Floyd flashback right now, exhaustively re-discovering, or in some cases discovering, the band’s back catalog and the wealth of YouTube material on the band. Once you start digging around in Floyd’s past, the shovel immediately hits Syd Barrett, the band’s “genius” founding member whose outrageous psychedelic drug use—so the folk history goes—left him mentally damaged ("Shine on You Crazy Diamond" is both a tribute and a cautionary tale) and unable to participate in what became a very commercially successful venture.
I didn’t know Barrett, his family, or any members of Pink Floyd, so this account comes through the popular, kaleidoscopic lens of his story’s telling and retelling. It fits nicely into a presumed narrative about the damage that heavy use of psychedelics has done to artists (see also Peter Green, Brian Wilson, Richey Edwards, et al.).
But is that narrative, and the larger idea that psychedelic drugs like LSD, magic mushrooms, and mescaline are inherently damaging psychologically, accurate? Given that the synthesized drugs were actually evaluated as therapies in the past (and present), they come with a lengthy psychoactive back story. Existingscholarship has been suggesting that narrative is wrong, and a new survey of U.S. health records by Norwegian researchers Teri Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johansen—subjects of this cover story from when we were known as Miller-McCune–find that long-term use of psychedelics doesn’t contribute to mental health problems, and may actually help combat some.
Since the links above suggest that hallucinogens, plus drugs like ecstasy (MDMA), may address issues ranging from PTSD to alcoholism, this may seem like old news. But helping in one area doesn’t automatically mean that something won’t hurt in another—an aspirin a day may keep the cardiologist at bay, but keep the gastroenterologist on speed dial.
Taking the National Survey on Drug Use and Health between the years 2001 and 2004 and examining the records of more than 130,000 respondents, almost 22,000 of whom self-reported lifetime psychedelic use, the authors are pretty insistent that the “classical serotonergic psychedelics” are not a pressing public health threat:
LSD and psilocybin are consistently ranked in expert assessments as causing less harm to both individual users and society than alcohol, tobacco, and most other common recreational drugs. Given that millions of doses of psychedelics have been consumed every year for over 40 years, well-documented case reports of long-term mental health problems following use of these substances are rare. Controlled studies have not suggested that use of psychedelics lead to long-term mental health problems.
But what about flashbacks, Joe Friday, Syd Barrett?
"Early speculation that psychedelics might lead to mental health problems was based on a small number of case reports and did not take into account either the widespread use of psychedelics or the not infrequent rate of mental health problems in the general population," Krebs was quoted in a release from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. "Over the past 50 years tens of millions of people have used psychedelics and there just is not much evidence of long-term problems."
Surely people have had bad trips. And, the researchers report, surely they have. But their population study was looking at more permanent problems; they report that the “adverse effects of psychedelics are usually short-lived; serious psychiatric symptoms following psychedelic use are typically resolved within 24 hours or at least within a few days.” And anecdotal reports of longer-term mental issues or “hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder” they tend to reject as unsupported by further investigation, mistaking correlation for cause, or derived from small studies with suspect methodologies.
Case reports of mental health problems following psychedelics are often comparable to case reports of mental health problems linked to intensive meditation, visiting holy sites, or viewing beautiful artwork and sublime natural scenes.
Our Lady of Peyote—ouch!
Of, and what of Barrett, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2006, age 60? His friend and replacement in the Floyd, David Gilmour, said this about Barrett’s mental problems/drug misadventures:
"In my opinion, his nervous breakdown would have happened anyway. It was a deep-rooted thing. But I'll say the psychedelic experience might well have acted as a catalyst. Still, I just don't think he could deal with the vision of success and all the things that went with it."