A new study found that participants who used MDMA or psilocybin at some point in their lives tend to have lower psychological distress and suicidality—if they are white.
Harvard psychology researchers pulled data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which has 484,000 respondents. They analyzed lifetime use of MDMA and psilocybin, defined as use at any point in participants’ lifetimes, and ran regression models to determine whether race was a factor in how strongly lifetime use of psychedelics correlated with distress and suicide ideation.
You can read the full study here.
White participants showed a strong correlation between MDMA or psilocybin use and positive mental health effects. However, African-American, Indigenous, and multiracial participants did not show a significant correlation between psychedelic use and likelihood of psychological distress or thoughts of suicide. That means psychedelic use for these populations was not associated with improved mental health.
Hispanic and Asian participants fell somewhere in between. These populations showed a stronger correlation than Black, Indigenous, and multiracial groups, and a weaker correlation when compared to white participants.
Medical understanding of psychedelics and mental health is advancing rapidly as study after study shows promising benefits for serious mental health issues. However, these results are worth deeper consideration because they suggest that psychedelic therapies may not be effective for the general population straight out of the box.
More research is needed to tease out why certain groups respond differently from one another. With additional study, we may find that certain subsets of the population may need a more tailored approach as these therapies move from research to practice.
The research team acknowledged limitations to the study, including the correlational model, which does not infer causation. Further study is needed to determine whether psychedelics cause improved mental health for diverse groups.
Additionally, the researchers point out that set and setting (the participant’s state of mind, mood, and environment while taking the drug) could contribute to results, as set and setting have a palpable impact on these drugs’ effects. For example, racism, prejudice, and discrimination may negatively affect a person’s mindset: minorities are more at risk of arrest for illegal substance use than are white Americans, which means engaging in psychedelic use can be particularly risky for non-white groups.
Leveling the playing field in future investigation may include measures such as purposeful inclusion in study populations, representation among research teams, study designs that thoroughly control for demographics and other characteristics, and other safeguards against over-generalized results.