Fifty years ago, psychedelics like LSD were tested in government-funded labs, as powerful, but promising new drugs. This all ended when the substances were used recreationally, first made famous by the Merry Pranksters like Stewart Brand, and soon to a wider public during the Summer of Love, at Woodstock, and Grateful Dead shows. Since the 1990s however, the worldwide ban on psychedelic research has been receding and scientists have turned back to studying the potential of these substances as medical treatments for a variety of illnesses.
The research has its critics: Detractors point to the potential for psychological harm (from “bad trips”) and the idea that psychedelics can cause mental illness. A recent study shows that this last point has little bearing in reality and that psychedelic use doesn’t raise the risk of mental illness.
The study uses data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Respondents were asked if they had ever used LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, or peyote, and if they had used LSD in the past year. About 22,000 out of the over 130,000 respondents had used psychedelics. They were also asked about their mental health history. Their mental health was further evaluated using a scale that measures psychological distress and questions used to diagnose common psychiatric disorders. After adjusting for other risk factors such as exposure to traumatic events and past risk-taking behavior, the researchers found that psychedelic use wasn’t indicative of increased mental health problems. In fact, use of mescaline or psilocybin at some point in a person’s life and recent use of LSD (within the last year) corresponded with lower rates of serious psychological distress.
When used in a safe setting, such as the labs established at NYU and Johns Hopkins, researchers are finding that some psychedelics may help treat disorders such as alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety by allowing people to experience an alternative viewpoint, and gaining insight into their problems. “We may have a very different model to treat people that actually may be of greater value than many of the conventional treatments that we have,” says Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center who has researched clinical psychedelic drug use. “This study should allow us to take a new and fresh and objective look at what are the true range of effects of psychedelic drugs.”