The story does a nice job of reviewing previous research on psychedelic drugs and mental illness, and it does eventually address what science views at the major limitation of the observational study being reported on — the fact that it can’t tell us whether psychedelic drug use actually caused the reduction in suicidal thoughts and attempts that the study authors found.
With that being said, an initial version of this story that was posted online did not contain that crucial caveat, and it allowed a study author to get a bit too enthusiastic about the benefits of psychedelic drugs. Sounding a bit magical himself, the author speculated that magic mushrooms and similar drugs could help people reprioritize their values in a positive way. “So if we mobilize these spiritual resources,” he said, “there may not be anything we couldn’t do.”
Look, we applaud whomever made these changes to make the story more accurate and responsible. But in an ideal world, we’d prefer that such editing be done before the story gets posted in the first place. Stories like this one have a very short shelf life, and midstream course corrections may come too late to make a difference.
Depression is a widespread illness with large impacts on morbidity and mortality in the United States, so it is important to explore new potential treatments. The article also touches on an important tension between public health efforts to reduce psychedelic drug use and clinical research that is exploring the benefits of these drugs. Similar research for medical marijuana has already had interesting ramifications.
No costs were cited, perhaps because the drugs are not legally available in the United States. We’ll rate this Not Applicable.
The story cites “about 27,235 people” who said they had used “classic” psychedelics, which it identifies as magic mushrooms, DMT, mescaline and LSD. And it lists the reduction in the odds that these people had exhibited psychological distress in the prior month (-19%) or suicidal thoughts (-14%) or suicidal attempts (-36%) during the prior year. But it does not give total numbers of individuals for any of those categories.
As a side note, we’d point out that the study technically reported on the “odds” and not the “probability” of exhibiting suicidal thoughts or attempts (the latter being language used in the story). A small point, to be sure, but we think these details matter.
“The effects of psychedelics on the developing brain are still largely unknown, meaning they could still pose a threat to people with a predisposition to schizophrenia,” says the story. But it does not add other possible drawbacks cited by the study, such as “feelings of anxiety, fear, panic and paranoia.” Since potential harm is a big reason these drugs are not widely available, we think this was an issue worth discussing in more detail.
The story notes a number of limitations in the study. The survey participants may not have told the truth, and those who participated in the study and reported having used psychedelics may have had something in their personalities — unrelated to drug use — that made them less susceptible to suicidality. So, in other words, the study can’t tell us if these drugs are responsible for — or merely associated with — these mental health benefits.
And as we pointed out in our review summary, an early version of this story posted online did not alert readers to this important limitation. It didn’t contain this line: “…perhaps those who participated in the study and had reported using psychedelics in the past had personalities that made them less susceptible to distress and suicidality in the first place.”
The article cites figures for the incidence of suicide and doesn’t engage in disease mongering.
The article’s sole source is the lead author of the study. Especially for a controversial topic such as this one, we think it’s important to include feedback from experts with differing perspectives.
The story should have explained that antidepressant medicines and psychotherapy are effective for treatment of depression. Providing this context can help normalize and reduce stigma surrounding depression treatment.
The study noted that the drugs are not available legally in the United States.
The article notes that the possible beneficial use of psychedelic drugs dates back far before Timothy Leary was urging students to turn on, tune in, and drop out.
The article links to a news release about the study, but includes other information, too.