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Psychedelic users tended to have better mental health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic

A study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that individuals who have used psychedelic substances reported lower psychological distress, enhanced…



A recently published study, which was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, suggests that individuals who have used psychedelic substances experience lower psychological distress, improved well-being, and enhanced post-traumatic growth. The new findings appear in the journal Scientific Reports. The use of psychedelic drugs has long been a subject of fascination and debate. Historically, these substances have been associated with counterculture movements, and their effects have been portrayed in various ways in popular culture. However, in recent years, researchers have started to examine their therapeutic potential, particularly in addressing mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The COVID-19 pandemic presented an unusual opportunity to investigate the relationship between hallucinogenic drug use and mental health. With much of the world facing lockdowns and isolation, the researchers wondered whether these substances could play a role in mitigating the psychological toll of the pandemic. “In a previous paper, we found for the first time that psychedelics may help with coping processes in stressful situations. The pandemic was a perfect opportunity to test the hypothesis,” said study author José Carlos Bouso, the scientific director for the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service (ICEERS). For their study, the researchers recruited a sample of 2,971 participants for the baseline assessment, with 1,024 participants at the first follow-up (two months later) and 455 participants at the last follow-up (six months after the baseline assessment). To gather data, the team developed an online survey specifically designed for this study, which was made available in Spanish, Portuguese, and English. The survey reached individuals from over 80 countries, including Spain, Brazil, and many others, thanks to snowball sampling and online dissemination through various channels, including social media, scientific journals, and community websites. “The survey was released to the general population,” Bouso noted. “We did not disclose that we were conducting research about psychedelics to avoid biasing the answers.” The study employed well-established psychometric measures to assess various aspects of mental health. These included the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) for screening psychological distress, the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI) for evaluating specific symptoms of psychopathology, the Peritraumatic Stress Inventory (PSI) to measure symptoms associated with traumatic experiences, and the Post-traumatic Growth Inventory (PGI) to assess positive changes following such experiences. Participants were also asked about their use of psychedelic drugs, including MDMA, ayahuasca, psilocybin-containing mushrooms, LSD, peyote, and others. The study categorized participants as regular users, occasional users, or never-users at the baseline assessment and tracked changes in drug use during follow-ups. Individuals who reported lifetime use of psychedelic drugs tended to have better mental health outcomes during the pandemic. These outcomes included reduced psychological distress, fewer symptoms of mental health disorders, and enhanced psychological well-being.
Users of psychedelic drugs experienced fewer symptoms across various mental health dimensions, including obsessions or compulsions, depression, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation, and psychoticism. The overall severity of psychological symptoms, as indicated by the General Severity Index (GSI), was also lower among this group. Compared to occasional and never-users, regular users of psychedelic drugs reported higher scores on the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTG), a measure of positive changes perceived following a traumatic event. These changes encompassed areas such as forming new possibilities, personal strength, spiritual growth, improved relationships, and an increased appreciation for life. “Our hypotheses were confirmed: participating in structured psychedelic sessions seems to help with the adaptive process in stressful situations and may thus be a protective factor for mental health,” Bouso told PsyPost. Another notable discovery was that hallucinogenic drug users were less reliant on information from the media and politicians. This is noteworthy because excessive exposure to pandemic-related news and information has been linked to higher levels of distress. The study also explored differences between respondents from different language backgrounds (English, Spanish, and Portuguese). While variations were observed in their responses, no consistent pattern emerged, suggesting that these findings transcend cultural boundaries. While these findings offer intriguing insights, it’s essential to acknowledge the limitations of this study. One notable limitation was the high dropout rate during follow-up assessments, which may have influenced the results. Additionally, the survey relied on self-report measures, which can introduce biases. “This was an observational study,” Bouso said. “The next step should be to conduct a controlled trial.” Future research should explore the mechanisms through which psychedelic drugs influence mental health and well-being, potentially shedding light on their therapeutic potential. The study’s authors also highlighted the need for reevaluating drug policies and reconsidering relationship between psychedelic experiences and mental health resilience. “This study opens the door to using psychedelics as preventive strategies in mental health, not just as treatments when the problem has already become entrenched,” Bouso said. The study, “Longitudinal and transcultural assessment of the relationship between hallucinogens, well-being, and post-traumatic growth during the COVID-19 pandemic“, was authored by José Carlos Bouso, Dóra Révész, Genís Ona, Giordano N. Rossi, Juliana M. Rocha, Rafael G. dos Santos, Jaime E. C. Hallak, and Miguel Ángel Alcázar-Corcoles.

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