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October 19, 2023

People with depression are increasingly taking LSD, and research suggests it may help when used under supervision

Scientific evidence on the mental health benefits of psychedelic drugs is piling up. MDMA and 'magic' mushrooms also have shown promise in treating conditions like anxiety and PTSD

Mental Health Psychedelics

More people are using LSD, particularly young adults, new research shows. The trend comes as scientific evidence piles up on the potential mental health benefits of psychedelic drugs. But LSD, shown above in sugar cube form, remains illegal.

LSD usage is on the rise among U.S. adults – especially young adults with depression. And the trend mirrors growing research into the psychedelic drug's ability to treat mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.

The number of Americans with depression who say they've taken LSD within the last year more than tripled from 0.5% in 2008 to 1.8% in 2019, according to a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry. This boost was even more pronounced among younger adults – LSD usage jumped from 1.6% to 4.9% among people ages 18-25 – and those with lower household incomes.

The study did not ask respondents about their motivations for taking LSD, which remains illegal, so it is difficult to assess the reasons for the increases. It also did not ask about dosing, so it's unclear how people are using it. 

But the researchers suggested renewed interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics has led to more favorable perceptions of the hallucinogenic drug.

"Our results also coincide with findings showing a decrease in the perception of regular LSD use as risky, suggesting that individuals with depression may be trying LSD without an expectation of adverse events," the researchers wrote. "Given that the trend in LSD use is increasing in the overall population as well as among those with depression, public health messaging informing safe practices of LSD use to mitigate harm in medically unsupervised settings is warranted."

LSD, formally known as lysergic acid diethylamide, can increase body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure while also impairing depth and time perception, and the ability to make sound judgments, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Some users may suffer so-called "flashbacks" of their drug experiences days afterward.

Still, advocates say psychedelics like LSD can be medically beneficial when used under appropriate supervision, and the buzz around psychedelics in the U.S. has exploded in recent years. Major media outlets have heralded "a new era in psychiatric treatment" as studies on the mental health benefits of psychedelics have piled up and efforts to legalize these substances have started making gains.

In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its first guidance for the study of psychedelics for medical purposes. Although several psychedelic drugs, including LSD, remain classified by the federal government as Schedule 1 illegal drugs due to their high potential for abuse, many researchers see the new guidance as a sign that federal policy on psychedelics may be softening. 

For many, this shift may prove to be beneficial over time. With rates of depression exploding to new highs in the United States and traditional treatment failing to provide relief for as many as 30% of patients, the demand for new, effective mental health treatments may increase. And whether it's administered medically or independetly, researchers suspect LSD may become a more common piece of the therapeutic puzzle. 

"If the rates of depression continue to increase in tandem with popular media and research reports presenting psychedelics as beneficial, the number of individuals who use LSD in the context of major depression will likely continue to increase," the study authors wrote.

From acid casualties to clinical trials: Tracing shifting attitudes toward psychedelics

Historically, psychedelic drugs have not been synonymous with sound mental health. As LSD grew to prominence in the 1960s, so too did fears that the drug could induce psychosis or have other harmful effects on mental health. News reports warning of nightmarish side effects and "bad trips" became common, and mentally troubled pioneers in psychedelic rock music like Roky Erickson and Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett were thought to be "acid casualties" who damaged their brains by taking too much acid. 

"Psychedelics are psychologically intense, and many people will blame anything that happens for the rest of their lives on a psychedelic experience," clinical psychologist Teri Suzanne Krebs told Nature in 2015. The scientific journal noted that there is no scientific link between psychedelics and psychosis. 

In recent years, a multitude of studies has shown psychedelic drugs like LSD, methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) and psilocybin can help a variety of mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders like anorexia.  

In 2014, researchers found that LSD-assisted psychotherapy administered to people with life-threatening diseases resulted in reduced anxiety, increased quality of life and "insightful, cathartic and interpersonal experiences." The evidence has grown since then. In April, an analysis of five clinical trials found that psychedelics can significantly reduce anxiety and depression symptoms in late-stage cancer patients – and may be more effective than prescription antidepressants. 

It's not just the terminally ill who can benefit from psychedelics. A 2018 study showed that manmade psychedelic substances like LSD and MDMA can induce structural changes in the brain that can improve symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD. Psilocybin, the compound found in "magic" psychedelic mushrooms, has been found to be an effective treatment for anxiety, depressionPTSD and anorexia

Meanwhile, ketamine, a legal anesthetic with dissociative effects, can help treat depressionPTSD and heroin addiction. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania also have examined the potential psychedelics may hold for treating Alzheimer's disease.

Even as the scientific consensus behind the therapeutic value of psychedelics grows more compelling, the momentum of this newfound psychedelic renaissance may hit a few roadblocks. 

As old stigmas fade, legalization remains a hurdle

The revelation that psychedelics may help treat mental health conditions is hardly a new one. As far back as the 1950s and 1960s, LSD was found to be very effective in treating alcoholism and various studies examining its impact on mental conditions were common. By the 1970s, psychedelic research had largely stopped due to changes in pharmaceutical research regulations and federal drug policy. In 1968, the federal government outlawed LSD and classified it as a Schedule 1 drug due to its potential for abuse and lack of a legitimate medical purpose.

Under federal law, psilocybin, MDMA, peyote and LSD are all classified as Schedule 1 illegal drugs by the DEA – which complicates efforts to research and distribute these substances. But as the scientific evidence pointing to psychedelics' medical legitimacy has grown, so have movements toward legalization. 

Nationwide, Oregon and Colorado have fully legalized psilocybin, and 23 more states are considering legislation that would decriminalize or legalize psychedelic substances. Only six of those decriminalization proposals explicitly include LSD, according to state-by-state data compiled by PsychedelicAlpha.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, proposals to decriminalize psilocybin and encourage further research into its therapeutic value have shown up on state legislative agendas. In Philadelphia, groups like Decriminalize Nature Philly are pushing City Council to decriminalize psilocybin and other entheogenic plants within city limits.

Compared to cannabis, which is now legalized for recreational purposes in 23 states, psychedelics may have a longer way to go toward being normalized and readily available. But that's not stopping researchers – or anyone else, for that matter – from pushing forward toward a new psychedelic frontier. 

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