In the last six years, psychedelic usage has increased worldwide, according to data from the Global Drug Survey, the world’s largest drug survey. The 2020 Global Drug Survey has now found that many people are not only using psychedelics recreationally, but are self-medicating with psychedelics to address mental health concerns. Of the 110,000 respondents, almost 6% used psychedelics as a mental health treatment.
Survey participants reported using LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, and other drugs to combat mental health issues ranging from depression, which was the most common disorder cited, to grief and relationship problems. The survey ran for two months in 2019 and included people from countries around the world. Of the 6500 respondents who said they self-medicated with psychedelics, 72% identified as male, 25% as female, and 2% as non-binary or different gender identity.
Numerous studies and research projects have shown that psychedelics use is increasing and that they hold promise as effective and safe mental health treatment. However, a lack of access to these therapies may have caused self-medication to proliferate.
While the majority of study respondents reported recreational use to enhance a feeling of well-being, the number of those self-medicating is larger than previously thought. “The outcome may be quite similar between self-medication and recreational use, but the intent is different,” explained Monica Barrett, professor at Australia’s RMIT University and a co-author of the study.
“Where self-medication psychedelic use is done with the intent to alleviate a mental health condition, recreational use may have a broader intent which could also include enjoyment or changing one’s conscious state for fun or curiosity. Ultimately, though, many similar experiences may occur – including mystical and life-changing experiences – regardless of intent.”
Because of the lack of access to these compounds in a clinical setting, many people who self-medicate use alone or with a trusted friend or partner – but the lack of pre-treatment assessment or oversight by a psychedelics trained clinician can introduce unexpected challenges during the experience. Of the survey respondents who reported self-medicating, 3.7% revealed that they required emergency medical care as a direct result of their experience.
“Having a trained supervisor (ideally a health professional) who can provide care before, during, and after is critical to help reduce negative effects,” said Barrett. “Ensuring that the person is able to relax and is not anxious about impending responsibilities, as well as use within a relaxing and safe environment, are all critical. If things do go wrong, the willingness of supervisors to seek medical help is important, but it is also, unfortunately, the case that many first responders are not well trained to support people in this situation, and may make the situation worse.”
According to Dr. Barrett, the most important takeaway from the survey is the need for safe access to psychedelics. “Given the context of lack of access to psychedelics as medicine via formal channels, people are already using psychedelics as a DIY mental health treatment, and that we need to address that reality. We need to recognize the demand for them is increasing and this demand may end up being filled outside of the medical setting. We can help bridge this gap between the current situation and a future where psychedelics as medicine are more accessible by creating accredited courses for people who work in the mental health space to help support this group.”