Psilocybin and use of other hallucinogens became popular in the United States
in the 1960s due to charismatic proponents, who suggested anecdotally
that users would experience profound psychological insights and
benefits. But drugs such as psilocybin and LSD were banned for supposed
safety reasons shortly thereafter, in the 1970s, without much scientific
evidence about risks or benefits.
In a survey of almost 2,000 people who said they had had a past
negative experience when taking psilocybin-containing "magic mushrooms,"
Johns Hopkins researchers say that more than 10% believed their
worst "bad trip" had put themselves or others in harm's way, and a
substantial majority called their most distressing episode one of the
top 10 biggest challenges of their lives.
‘People who have used psilocybin-containing "magic mushrooms," reported it as their most distressing episode and one of the top 10 biggest challenges of their lives.’
Despite the difficulty,
however, most of the respondents still reported the experience to be
"meaningful" or "worthwhile," with half of these positive responses
claiming it as one of the top most valuable experiences in their life.
The results of the survey were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology
The researchers caution that their survey results don't apply to all
psilocybin mushroom use, since the questionnaire wasn't designed to
assess "good trip" experiences. And, the survey wasn't designed to
determine how often bad trips occur.
"Considering both the negative effects and the positive outcomes
that respondents sometimes reported, the survey results confirm our view
that neither users nor researchers can be cavalier about the risks
associated with psilocybin," says Roland Griffiths,
a psychopharmacologist and professor of psychiatry and
behavioral sciences and neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University
School of Medicine.
Griffiths has spent more than 15 years conducting studies of psilocybin's capacity to produce profound, mystical-type experiences, treat psychological anxiety and depression and to aid in smoking cessation.
In recent years, Griffiths and his team have conducted more than a
dozen studies confirming some of those benefits. The current study was
designed, he said, to shed light on the impact of so-called "bad trips."
For the new survey, Griffiths' team used advertisements on social
media platforms and email invitations to recruit people who
self-reported a difficult or challenging experience while taking
psilocybin mushrooms. The survey took about an hour to complete and
included three questionnaires: the Hallucinogen Rating Scale, the
Mystical Experience Questionnaire, developed by Griffiths and colleagues
in 2006, and parts of the 5D-Altered States of Consciousness
Participants were asked in the survey to focus only on their worst
bad trip experience, and then to report about the dose of psilocybin
they took, the environment in which the experience occurred, how long it
lasted, and strategies available and used to stop this negative
experience and any unwanted consequences.
Of 1,993 completed surveys, 78% of respondents were men, 89% were white, and 51% had college or graduate degrees. 66% were from the U.S. On average, the survey participants
were 30 years old at the time of the survey and 23 years old at the
time of their bad trips, with 93% responding that they used
psilocybin more than two times.
Based on the survey data that assessed each respondent's absolute
worst bad trip, 10.7% of the respondents said they put themselves
or others at risk for physical harm during their bad trip. Some 2.6% said they acted aggressively or violently, and 2.7% said
they sought medical help.
Five of the participants with self-reported
pre-existing anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts attempted suicide
while on the drug during their worst bad trip, which the researchers say
is indicative of requiring a supportive and safe environment during
use, like those conditions used in ongoing research studies.
six people reported that their suicidal thoughts disappeared after their
experience on their worst bad trip - the latter result coinciding with
a recent study published by Griffiths showing the antidepressive properties of psilocybin in cancer patients.
Still, Griffiths said, a third of the participants also said their
experience was among the top five most meaningful, and a third ranked it
in the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their
lives. 62% of participants said the experience was among
the top 10 most difficult ones in their lifetime; 39% listed it
in their top five most difficult experiences; and 11% listed it
as their single most difficult experience.
"The counterintuitive finding that extremely difficult experiences
can sometimes also be very meaningful experiences is consistent with
what we see in our studies with psilocybin - that resolution of a
difficult experience, sometimes described as catharsis, often results in
positive personal meaning or spiritual significance," Griffiths says.
In all of Griffiths' clinical research, people given psilocybin are
provided a safe, comfortable space with trained experts to offer
support to participants. "Throughout these carefully managed studies,
the incidence of risky behaviors or enduring psychological problems has
been extremely low," Griffiths says. "We are vigilant in screening out
volunteers who may not be suited to receive psilocybin, and we mentally
prepare study participants before their psilocybin sessions."
"Cultures that have long used psilocybin mushrooms for healing or
religious purposes have recognized their potential dangers and have
developed corresponding safeguards," says Griffiths. "They don't give
the mushrooms to just anyone, anytime, without a contained setting and
supportive, skillful monitoring."
The researchers say that survey studies like this one rely on
self-reporting that cannot be objectively substantiated, and that
additional scientifically rigorous studies are needed to better
understand the risks and potential benefits of using hallucinogenic
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 22.9
million people or 8.7% of Americans reported prior use of
psilocybin. While not without behavioral and psychological risks,
psilocybin is not regarded as addictive or as toxic to the brain, liver
or other organs.