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Psychedelic drug use associated with reduced psychological distress and fewer suicidal thoughts

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The National Institute of Mental Health has called for novel ways of thinking about suicidal behavior and new avenues for its prevention. “Treatments involving classic psychedelics may represent one such approach,” according to a new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

More than 38,000 Americans died by suicide in 2010, making it the tenth leading cause of death, according to the NIMH. (If you are in a suicide crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)

“Despite advances in mental health treatment over the past 60 years, suicide rates have not significantly declined in much of the world during this time,” Peter S. Hendricks of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and his colleagues wrote in their study.

The researchers said their study showed that “classic” psychedelics — drugs like LSD, “magic” psilocybe mushrooms, and mescaline-containing cacti like peyote — “have the potential to alleviate human suffering associated with mental illness.”

The study found that people who used classic psychedelic drugs tended to have lower levels of psychological distress, and were less likely to experience suicidal thoughts, suicidal planning, or attempt suicide.

“Lifetime 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,” they said.

The study was based on data on 190,000 adults who participated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a national study conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

However, the cross-sectional design of the study makes it impossible to say why the use of psychedelic drugs was associated with reductions in psychological distress and suicidality.

Previous research conducted in Switzerland has found that psilocybin inhibits the processing of negative emotions in the brain. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers have also found the drug produced long-lasting elevations in mood among healthy volunteers.

Drugs like LSD and psilocybin affect serotonin receptors in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with suicide risk, Hendricks and his colleagues noted.

But psychedelics can exacerbate symptoms of schizophrenia and psychosis. The drugs can also produce unpleasant experiences, known as “bad trips.”

“Nevertheless, the associations reported here suggest that if individual-level harms occurred, they failed to obscure the apparent protective effect of classic psychedelic use on psychological distress and suicidality at the population level.”

The researchers said that the findings could also be due to the characteristics of psychedelic drug users, rather than the characteristics of psychedelic drugs themselves. A previous study found that psychedelic users “reported less materialistic values and greater mysticism, spirituality, and concern for others” – all characteristics that could reduce their risk of suicide.

“The picture is undoubtedly complex,” the researchers said. “Nevertheless, future research should attempt to delineate longitudinal predictors of classic psychedelic use that also relate to mental health and suicidal behavior.”