Study: Psychedelics Users Are Less Likely To Be Suicidal

Photo: By Moyan Brenn - Flickr Creative Commons


by April M. Short

on January 16, 2015

Classic psychedelics — including ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, DMT, mescaline and cacti containing mescaline — might be the keys to combating serious psychological issues that plague the U.S., including suicide. That is, according to a scientific analysis published this week.

Lead study author and research psychologist Peter S. Hendricks, PhD explained that “classic psychedelics” refers to substances that “primarily activate a type of receptor in the brain known as serotonin 2A (5HT2A).”

The study is published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology and is titled “Classic psychedelic use is associated with reduced psychological distress and suicidality in the United States adult population.” In addition to providing a general analysis of psychedelic use and mental health that represents the entire U.S. adult population, it reads as a call for the government to lift the Schedule I legal status of psychedelics which restricts scientific research. The U.S. government classifies Schedule I substances as “having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety under medical supervision.”

As its abstract explains, “classic psychedelics may hold promise in the prevention of suicide, supporting the view that classic psychedelics’ most highly restricted legal status should be reconsidered to facilitate scientific study, and suggesting that more extensive clinical research with classic psychedelics is warranted.”

Today mental health issues affect almost half a billion people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Symptomatic of these mental health issues, about a million people successfully commit suicide every year, as noted in the Hendricks study. In response to a recent call by the National Institute of Mental Health for research on new ways to address suicide, the study set out to evaluate the associations of classic psychedelic use with psychological distress and suicidality.

The study’s introduction lists a series of completed human studies that have demonstrated the safety and efficacy of various psychedelics in treating mental health issues. Despite this evidence, as the study notes, the general use of psychedelics remains federally prohibited, and research severely restricted.

“Consequently, an understanding of the impact of classic psychedelics on mental health and suicidality remains incomplete,” the study notes. “Given the regulatory difficulty associated with administering classic psychedelics to humans, population-based survey studies represent one means for examining the relationships of classic psychedelic use with mental health and suicidality.”

The current study looked at respondents to an annual survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,  called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Participants in the current study were taken from the pool of NSDUH respondents surveyed between 2008 and 2012. Every participant in the current study was 18 or over and had responded to the NSDUH with valid data on the primary independent variable: lifetime classic psychedelic use.

Hendricks notes that the NSDUH methodology “makes it quite likely that these respondents are representative of the U.S. adult population.”

Of the more than 190,000 survey respondents used for the Hendricks analysis, 27,235 reported lifetime classic psychedelic use. Among the psychedelic users there was a significant decrease in the likelihood of past month psychological distress, past year suicidal thinking, past year suicidal planning, and past year suicide attempt.

The study includes a note that psychedelic users may be more open-minded, which could either be a result of the use of psychedelics, or a preexisting quality among people who end up using psychedelics.

“I think it’s fair to say that we don’t yet quite know how classic psychedelic users might differ from those who have not used, prior to having used the substances,” Hendricks said. “Still, there is some evidence suggesting psychedelic users might be more open-minded and curious and spiritual, and less materialistic than non-psychedelic users. And these traits are certainly beneficial with regard to psychological well-being. So, it’s always possible that our results reflect characteristics of classic psychedelic users rather than an actual effect of the substances, though I suspect that both predrug characteristics and drug effects might explain our findings.

He continued, “Perhaps there’s something of a positive feedback loop where certain traits that draw one to classic psychedelic use are in turn boosted by such use. This is speculative, but I would like to see future research attempt to address this matter.”

Hendricks said he decided to conduct this analysis for a number of reasons, the first being that “the existing data on classic psychedelics are striking.”

“As a scientist, I am persuaded that classic psychedelics could be potent therapeutic agents,” he said. “Second, personally, I am intrigued by the notion of providing a profoundly meaningful personal or spiritual experience to occasion ‘quantum change’ — sudden, dramatic, lasting change.”

He said quantum change is “certainly something that our culture acknowledges.” To explain quantum change, Henricks used the analogy of the fictional Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge, whose entire psychology shifted one night after the epiphanic experience of being visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

“That there appear to be agents that can occasion such change is exciting, to say the least,” he said. “What caregiver or therapist wouldn’t want to see his or her client’s mental health improve in a sudden, dramatic, persisting manner?”

The third reason he was interested in the analysis is that suicide is “a major public health problem on a global scale.”

“One million lives are lost every year to suicide, and suicide rates have generally not decreased over the past 60 years,” he said. “Clearly, consistent with NIMH’s stated priorities, innovative suicide prevention interventions are needed. I decided to do these analyses to determine whether treatments using classic psychedelics might potentially represent one such approach. And I think the data suggest that classic psychedelic interventions deserve further attention. “

While the results of the analysis were in line with Hendricks’ original hypothesis, he said he was somewhat surprised that the use of psychedelics — even outside of safe, controlled settings — appeared to be protective against psychological issues.

“I believe it’s important that classic psychedelics be administered in carefully controlled and interpersonally supportive conditions with the appropriate safeguards,” he said. “As I mention in the paper, classic psychedelic users could have ingested substances of unknown purity and at doses that were either too low or too high, and in inappropriate settings without the necessary preparation or support. I expect that classic psychedelics will show greater evidence of benefit when administered in specialized settings.”

The study conclusion notes that while “classic psychedelics carry a contentious recent history and barriers to their clinical evaluation remain,” there is growing evidence that they might have “the potential to alleviate human suffering associated with mental illness.”