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More Australians using psychedelic drugs to self-treat mental health

New survey reveals Australians are using psychedel
Photo: More Australians using psychedelic drugs to self-treat mental health
The Global Drug Survey has revealed that more Australians are turning to psychedelic drugs to self-treat mental illness and emotional distress.

Of the 110,000 respondents worldwide, 6,500 people reported underground self-treatment, with LSD, MDMA (ecstasy) and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) most common.

The conditions that people were most commonly self-treating were depression, anxiety and relationships problems – the most common mental health conditions in the general population.

The head of the Australian arm of the survey, RMIT University’s Dr Monica Barratt, said the findings are a reminder that people are already using psychedelics as a DIY mental health treatment, and that this reality needs to be confronted by the healthcare community.
“These findings suggest that people are dissatisfied with mainstream options for treatment in some way – they may be not accessible enough or not as attractive as this alternative option of psychedelic self-treatment.”

“As Australia awaits the progress of clinical trials of these substances for mental health conditions, we need to recognise the demand for them is increasing and this demand may end up being filled outside of the medical setting,” she said.

Dr Barratt told HeatlhTimes that there were clear risks associated with self-treating mental health conditions with psychedelic drugs.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration does not currently recognise MDMA and psilocybin as legitimate medicines to treat psychiatric conditions but this could change, depending on clinical trial results.

“They are powerful compounds that can induce very strong experiences and if the person is not supported before, during and after that experience, they may have trouble integrating it into their lives in an ongoing way.”

“In addition, such unregulated drugs are currently only available via illegal markets and this brings with it harms related to unknown content and purity, meaning increased risk of overdose or other harms, as well as possible legal repercussions for individuals who may be caught by law enforcement in possession of these prohibited drugs.”

Dr Barratt said that GPs, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and counsellors may find themselves in a difficult position if their patients are self-treating with psychedelics.

“Firstly, the client may not want to tell their GP or therapist for fear of legal repercussions, but it is important if someone is doing this that they are able to get some support.”

“Some professionals already offer psychedelic integration (pre and post) but there are currently no accredited courses available to help train health professional in this specific practice, and this would be a welcome move in the interim while the results of formal clinical trials are pending.”

“Accredited training for psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to do preparatory and integration sessions to help support people who take underground psychedelics for self-treatment may help bridge the gap,” she said.

While considered an ‘underground’ therapy, most people reported having had a mental health and medication screening before taking unapproved drugs.

“However, only half of the sample reported a preparatory or an integration session – crucial aspects of the clinical model of psychedelic assisted psychotherapy currently being officially trialled”, Dr Barratt said.

“While this data cannot replace that from clinical trials, the survey found supervised psychedelic sessions were rated highly – 86% reported the session was helpful, while 1% said things got worse.”

A key trend noted by the survey was that 4.6% people who reported self-treating mental health issues with psychedelics reported seeking emergency medical treatment compared to the 1% of respondents who sought emergency medical treatment after using ‘common’ psychedelics – such as LSD and mushrooms – recreationally.

“The most likely explanation for the greater risk of people who are self-treating is that they already have mental health issues to treat, and therefore are at greater risk than the general population of requiring emergency treatment for psychiatric issues”, Dr Barratt said.

“In contrast, people who use these substances recreationally include people with mental health concerns but not exclusively, and so we would expect less incidence of psychiatric side effects requiring emergency attention in the general population.”

The Global Drug Survey is an independent research organisation based in London, which runs the largest drug survey in the world.

The annual survey was conducted with more than 110,000 respondents from 25 countries in late 2019, with 10% of the sample coming from Australia.

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Charlotte Mitchell

Charlotte is a published journalist and editor, with 10 years of experience in developing high-quality content for national and international publications.

With an academic background in both science and communications, she specialises in medical and science writing. Charlotte is passionate about creating engaging, evidence-based content that equips the community with important information on issues around healthcare, medicine and research.

Over the years, she has partnered with organisations including the Medical Journal of Australia, Cancer Council NSW, Bupa, the Australasian Medical Publishing Company, Dementia Australia, MDA National, pharmaceutical companies, and state and federal government agencies, to produce high-impact news and clinical content  for different audiences.