An intriguing new study from the Scientific Reports journal suggests that adolescents who have used psilocybin are less likely to think about suicide, but young LSD users may actually be more likely to do so. 

In recent years, dozens of new clinical studies have confirmed that Schedule I drugs like psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD can effectively treat depression, PTSD, anxiety, and a host of other mental health issues. This promising research has almost entirely focused on adults, however, making it unclear whether these therapies could also effectively treat adolescents who experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors (STBs).

Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among adolescents, and suicide rates among young people continue to rise year after year. Existing pharmaceutical treatments and therapies have proved to be relatively ineffective at stemming the increase in suicide rates. The lack of available treatment options has led many to consider treating these issues with psychedelic therapy, but relatively few studies have explored the risks of introducing adolescents to powerful psychedelics.

Earlier this year, researchers from the Department of Psychology at Harvard University published one of the first studies to explore associations between adolescent psychedelics use and suicide. This unique study found that adolescents with a history of MDMA or psilocybin use had a lower risk of suicide, but that young LSD users showed a higher risk. Now, the same team of researchers is back with an additional study that confirms some, but not all, of those findings.

“Researchers in the last decade have begun to explore the potential of classic psychedelics as a treatment for a multitude of mental disorders, many of which confer risk for STBs,” the study authors explained. “Recent research has shown that classic psychedelics, most namely psilocybin and LSD, can alleviate anxiety and depression (two of the main risk factors of suicide).”

The research team sourced their data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), a federally-funded survey that asks adolescents to anonymously report their drug use habits. In addition to detailing their lifetime drug use, teens were also asked to report whether they had experienced STBs. Specifically, respondents were asked whether they had ever thought about suicide, planned to commit suicide, or actually attempted to end their life.

The present study evaluated data from 262,217 adolescents aged 12 to 17 who filled out the NSDUH survey between 2004 and 2019. Out of this total, 4,592 (1.7%) respondents said that they had used MDMA at some point in their lives. Psilocybin was the most popular psychedelic of choice, used by 1.4% of all subjects, followed closely by LSD, used by 1.1% of respondents. Only 0.3% of the total subject pool said that they had tried peyote or mescaline.

A statistical analysis of the data revealed that adolescents who had used psilocybin were less likely to think about, plan, or attempt to commit suicide. Conversely, young LSD users were more likely to say that they had experienced all three of these STBs. Researchers also looked at adolescents who used MDMA and mescaline and found that these drugs did not have any significant impact on suicidal ideations at all.

This study is purely observational, making it impossible for the authors to conclusively state that LSD increases the risk of suicide, or that psilocybin lowers it. In order to fully explore these relationships, researchers would need to conduct double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. The present study does highlight the importance of conducting further research on adolescent psychedelic use, though. 

“The main limitation to this study is the findings cannot be used to establish a causal relationship between psychedelic use and STBs in adolescents,” the researchers explained. “More specifically, this study cannot establish a causal relationship between psilocybin use and lowered odds of STBs nor between LSD use and increased odds [of] STBs.”

“Future pharmacological work is needed to better understand the link between psychedelic use and STBs in young people… as none of the pharmacological mechanisms of psilocybin have been explored in adolescents,” the study authors conclude. “These investigations can also further elucidate the mechanisms underlying any potential harm that may be associated with adolescent psychedelic use as well.”