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Psychedelic drug use linked to fewer mental health problems

People who use LSD and other psychedelic drugs show fewer mental health problems, according to a large population-based study…

Open your mind. t_a_i_s

People who use LSD and other psychedelic drugs show fewer mental health problems, according to a large population-based study.

Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology analysed US data from more than 130,000 people, including 22,000 people who’d used psychedelics at least once or more over the past year to establish whether there was a link between the use of psychedelics and mental health problems.

Despite a common perception between drug use and harm, authors Pål-Ørjan Johansen and Teri Krebs said they’d found no link and instead reported in PLOS ONE a “significant association” to fewer mental health issues.

The data came from the 2001-4 National Survey on Drug Use and Health collected in the US, in which participants are asked about mental health treatment and symptoms, including anxiety and mood disorders, psychosis and psychological distress.

Changing perceptions

Psychedelic drugs include LSD, magic mushrooms and the peyote cactus, which contains the active ingredient mescalin. They work by sticking to chemical receptors on nerve cells instead of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has an influence on emotion and mood. Using psychedelics can change perceptions and lead to altered states of consciousness and hallucinations. Hallucinogens are used by many for recreation, but they’ve also been used through human history in rituals and religious ceremonies.

While evidence suggests that psychedelics are not addictive and don’t cause brain harm, “trips” can induce temporary anxiety that eventually wears off. But despite arguments that LSD and magic mushrooms should be considered as low-risk, they are classified as a Class A drug alongside heroin, cocaine and ecstasy.

While the study found a statistical association with fewer mental health problems, the findings don’t establish whether use of psychedelics directly leads to better mental health. Although other factors, such as gender, use of other illicit drugs and exposure to stressful events were adjusted for, the results point to a pattern, not a cause.

“We cannot exclude the possibility that use of psychedelics might have a negative effect on mental health for some individuals or groups, perhaps counterbalanced at a population level by a positive effect on mental health in others,” the authors said.

Matthew Johnson, a researcher into the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, and its potential to treat addiction and cancer-related distress, said one of the benefits of the study was that it used large data collected by the US government.

“This avoids many of the self-selection concerns that might be present for surveys targeted at hallucinogen users (for example if only those with positive experiences had participated),” he said. “[The data] are very well implemented and captures something very close to a representative sample.”

He added, “One caveat is that as a survey it is not possible to squarely address causality. It may have been that people who were mentally healthier happened to take psychedelics more than the mentally unhealthy.”

“Another, as pointed out by the authors, is that the data don’t demonstrate the lack of harm to some potential individual users. It may be that those cases are infrequent enough to be washed out at the population level, or it may be that some individuals experience mental health benefit and this offsets those with mental health detriment.”

“The analysis adds to the data pointing toward the safety of clinical research and treatment with psychedelics - with appropriate safeguards.”

A research black hole

LSD was first discovered in 1938 and research into the potential medical uses of psychedelics continued into the 1970s, around the time it was banned. But research - and funding - dried up. Since then, LSD and other hallucinogens have become more associated with 1960s political counter-culture as well as negative anecdotes such as people attempting to “fly”. Some experts have called it as a “research black hole”. A clinical trial into LSD in Switzerland in 2008 was the first to be carried out since the 1970s.

There is now an increasing push for more research into the potential benefits of psychedelics in medicine and in mental health. For example, psilocybin could help treat people with severe depression and LSD has been suggested to help people come to terms with a terminal illness. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and treating alcohol dependence are two other areas where psychedelics could help.

“Everything has some potential for negative effects, but psychedelic use is overall considered to pose a very low risk to the individual and to society,” Johansen said.

“Psychedelics can elicit temporary feelings of anxiety and confusion, but accidents leading to serious injury are extremely rare.”

Charles Grob, Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and an advocate of psychedelic research, said he believed the research would “help dispel some of the myths that have surrounded our collective understanding of psychedelics since the cultural and political turmoil of the 1960s”.

“Sufficient time has passed to allow for a fresh and objective examination of the true risk and benefit profile of psychedelic drugs.”

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19 Comments sorted by

  1. Gordon Smith

    Private citizen

    Or perhaps the headline could have read - fewer people who experiment with psychedelic drugs have existing mental health diagnosis.
    It is possible that the subset that predominately used psychedelic drugs where less at risk of mental health issues than the larger population that did not use them. Had less pre existing risk factors.
    If I researched the mental health status of those who drank soy latte I would probably find that they had a lower incidence of mental health.

    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Gordon Smith

      Discounting the obvious overlap?
      Of trippers and soy latte consumers?
      Relatively safe territory here until someone establishes a correlation between mental illness rates and political conservatism.
      With the jackpot possibly coming with religious political conservatism.
      But this is a serious subject for many, and that limits the acceptable political point scoring.
      Apologies to those so affected.

    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to James Hill

      All jokes aside though, James, mushrooms and peyote were sacraments to the shamanic societies in which their use originated. Why is nobody proposing a similar study on relationships between mental health and, say, taking communion in a church?

    3. Graeme Smith


      In reply to James Hill

      Alas, sufficient time has not passed to freely examine the true risks/benefits of the war on everything such as hallucinogens here. And money is still to be made by some.

    4. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Graeme Smith

      Perhaps the authors felt there was no space to include the CIA funded LSD experiments which took place in remote Provincial mental hospitals in NZ and Canada, as subsequently written up in The New Scientist Magazine,( becoming, incidentally, that public knowledge which all mental, health professionals are duty bound to "Profess", as it were).
      Still the experimentation, continued, with the intent of replicating the Brainwashing techniques of the Soviets, which came to light in the aftermath of the…

      Read more
    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to James Hill

      Thanks - I'd forgotten Huxley - must dig that reference out. I quite like Jeremy Narby's work as well.

    6. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Gordon Smith

      Gordon, the article does canvas the idea that users of psychedelics might be less disposed to mental illness but it also states that exposure to stressful events were adjusted for. And, the 22,000 users of psychedelics were a proper subset of the 130,000 respondents to the survey, so it isn't the same as sampling only soy latte drinkers at all. Finally, it acknowledges that after adjusting for various factors, the results go to pattern not causation. So, the headline is perfectly accurate (although, I would have used 'associated' rather than 'linked').

    7. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Some of the best subject perspective research was done by the greater Timothy (as distinct from the Tiny Tim) RIP.

    8. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      One might add John C Lilly's "Centre of the Cyclone" where he writes about his experiences as a neuroscientist who experimented with the drug in question during its legal period.
      Perhaps more "lucid" than "The Politics of Ecstacy" for the general reader interested in the subject.
      Interestingly, the phenomenon of "enlightenment" achieved by Buddhist meditations seem to correspond to the symptoms induced by the substance in question.
      Indicating that the drug stimulates an experience that can be attained naturally and drug free.

  2. George Michaelson


    given other good evidence CBT works, is there an aspect that people who consciously (sorry) choose to experiment with mind altering substances are possibly pre-disposed to display some plasticity and re-wiring in the light of experiential changes in their mental state?

    I did my share of schrooms in the 70s and I have absolutely no desire to go back there. ever. On the other hand, when I had some totally off-the-wall anxiety attacks much later on, I had a mental model to deal with them. It certainly came to mind.

    we don't teach each other to watch out for "flashbacks" for no reason..

  3. Allan Gardiner


    One needs to actually have -- in the very least -- a modicum of mentality before there exists any chance whatsoever of initially endangering it, and well before one's sustaining any actual irreparable damage. Those who do claim to have damaged their mentality, entirely through their own silly actions per psychedelics etc., most likely never really had any in the first place, but they can still at least have the odd stab at feigning some phantom pains I suppose. It's gotta be worth a shot.