The idea that psychedelics cause psychosis has a long history in urban mythology. Back in the 1980s, when I was a teenager, the way I heard the story was “seven hits of acid make you legally insane.”
Of course, the number fluctuated through the years, but the core idea—drugs like LSD and psilocybin are dangerous to our long term mental health—remained a constant.
Two new studies have found no link between psychedelic use and a wide suite of mental health conditions, including schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, anxiety disorders and suicide attempts.
The first, conducted by researchers from the Norwegian University of Science, made use of the copious data compiled by US National Survey of Drug Use and Health. By examining answers from 135,000 people who took the survey between 2008 and 2011, the researchers identified their core study group—the 14 percent of survey-takers who said they had used any of the three classic psychedelics (acid, mushrooms, or peyote) at some point in their lives.
Working backwards, they discovered that psychedelic-users were not at an increased risk of developing eleven key indicators of serious mental health problems.
A second study done at the University of Alabama and Johns Hopkins confirmed this finding. This study used the National Survey as core data, but examined responses from 2008 to 2012. Here too, the researchers involved also found no causal relationship between the three classic psychedelics and long-term mental health problems.
But where this second study gets even more interesting is that the researchers then inverted their line of questioning and went looking for positive mental health developments. And they found them. People who had tried LSD or psilocybin had lower lifetime rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Of course, this isn’t the first positive mental health outcome to be attributed to these drugs. The research into psychedelics as a treatment for end-of-life anxiety (brought on by terminal illness) shows that these substances are effective in treating severe anxiety and—equally important—that these benefits persist over time.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Imperial College in London have also begun peeling back the veil on the so-called ‘mind-expanding’ nature of psychedelics, finding some serious scientific evidence for reasons why these drugs help users release longstanding narrow-minded, negative outlooks.
And, finally, there’s also a bevy of research dating back to the 1950s that shows strong correlations between psychedelics and enhanced creativity. This research helps explain why Steve Jobs said taking LSD was one of the most important things he’s done in his lifetime, why Francis Crick was high on low-dose acid when he discovered the double-helix and why Tim Ferriss, in a recent interview with CNN, said: “The billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis. [They’re] trying to be very disruptive and look at the problems in the world … and ask completely new questions.”
But the larger point is that one in five adult Americans takes some kind of mental health drug—meaning anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, etc. What’s more, success rates are suspect. Only 15 percent of people treated for depression with drugs, for example, show long term remission.
But psychedelics—a class of long-vilified substances—are not only much safer than we believed (i.e. they don’t appear to make you crazy) and also shows significant long term mental health benefits across multiple categories: anti-depressant, anti-anxiety and performance-enhancement (for creativity). What’s more, to receive these benefits, you only need to take these substances a few times (not every day like other mental health medications).
Tim Leary believed psychedelics were tools for revolution—tune in, turn on, drop out, and all that. Well, perhaps.
But lost in all that buster is a much more prosaic yet powerful message—the real truth might be that these drugs can help us be a little less afraid and a little bit happier and isn’t that revolution enough?