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MDMA and Psilocybin Use Linked to Lower Odds of Suicidal Thoughts, Survey Finds

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jan 17, 2022   
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Suicide is one of the leading causes of death worldwide and is the second-most leading cause of death among young people aged 10-34 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is an urgent need for novel treatments to be developed that can assist in relieving suicidal thoughts and behaviors (STBs), as well as the root mental health conditions that give rise to these STBs. Early evidence has suggested that psychedelic drugs may be a promising avenue for development as mental health aids, but their Schedule 1 status as controlled substances has made research difficult and resulted in significant gaps in current scientific understanding.

Published this month in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, new research from the Harvard University Department of Psychology indicates that MDMA and psilocybin use is associated with reduced odds of suicidal thinking, planning, and overall psychological distress.

While the nature of the analysis cannot determine if this relationship is causal, the researchers believe that the results demonstrate the potential applications for psychedelics in mental health treatment, and highlight the need for further research in this field.

MDMA and ecstasy linked to lower odds of psychological distress

In the new study, researchers examined data from over 484,000 adult respondents to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health between 2008 and 2019. Drug usage was assessed by looking at whether a respondent endorsed using a certain drug at any point in their lifetime. Specifically, the current study was concerned with lifetime use of MDMA/ecstasy, classic psychedelics (psilocybin, LSD, peyote, mescaline), other illegal substances (cocaine, heroin, PCP), and legal substances that are often misused (inhalants, pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, sedatives, and cannabis).

Respondents to the survey were also asked about whether they had felt serious psychological distress in the past month, as well as any suicidal ideation, planning, or attempts in the past year. By analyzing these answers against the respondents’ drug use history, the Harvard University researchers sought to assess whether there were any non-causal associations between certain drugs and the odds of suicidal thoughts and behaviors (STBs).

Overall, 5.3 percent of survey respondents reported past-month psychological distress. The rates for past-year suicidal ideation, planning, and attempts were 4.1 percent, 1.2 percent, 0.5 percent, respectively.

The researchers found that lifetime use of MDMA was associated with a 10 percent reduced odds of past-year suicidal thoughts and a 12 percent reduction in the odds of reporting past-year suicidal planning. Lifetime psilocybin use was associated with a 22 percent drop in the likelihood of past-month psychological distress and also marginally associated with decreased odds of past-year suicidal planning and attempts.

This association adds to the existing evidence suggesting that MDMA and psilocybin may have significant therapeutic potential in tackling mental health problems and addressing STBs, the researchers say.

LSD associated with increased odds of suicidal thinking

The study also looked at the lifetime use of drugs other than MDMA or psilocybin drugs, but found no significant associations with reduced odds of serious psychological distress or STBs. However, the researchers found that lifetime use of LSD appeared to be associated with a higher likelihood of past-year suicidal thinking.

This association appears to be contrary to previous scientific evidence, which has suggested that LSD could hold good potential as a treatment for some mood disorders and generalized anxiety, which can be a risk factor for STBs. Additionally, preliminary work has demonstrated that LSD could help to curb anxiety in patients with life-threatening diseases.

“In light of our findings on other classic psychedelics (LSD, mescaline, peyote), future research should investigate both the therapeutic potential and the risks of classic psychedelics on outcomes related to psychological distress and STBs,” the researchers wrote.

“Studies that further investigate both the risks and benefits of classic psychedelic substances may assist with the development of safe and effective treatment protocols for a host of disorders.”

The researchers do note several limitations on this study. Most notably, the nature of the study design means that it is impossible to determine any causal relationship between lifetime psychedelic use and reduced odds of psychological distress or STBs; further studies of varied design are needed in order to establish a cause-and-effect relationship.

The authors also recognize that there may have been significant differences between the drug using and non-using groups that existed prior to drug use, which may have influenced the respondents’ mental health. Additionally, they note that studying lifetime use versus past-month or past-year use increases the likelihood of there being other significant variable factors at play.

However, if future studies can account for these limitations, then it would strengthen the possibility of a causal link between psychedelics use and decreased odds of STBs, the researchers conclude.

Information on suicide prevention can be found here. Readers in the US can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).


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