Women and Men Self-Medicate With Psychedelics for Different Reasons

And other findings from the Global Drug Survey's latest study.
March 5, 2021, 12:01am
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Photo: Joe Bird / Alamy Stock Photo

Research published today by The Global Drug Survey has shed light on the experiences of people taking psychedelics to aid their wellbeing and mental health.

The online study, undertaken between November and December of 2019, canvassed over 15,000 LSD and 11,000 magic mushroom users, finding broadly positive results which nevertheless raise some important issues – notably around greater screening for potentially vulnerable users.

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Thanks to the pandemic, the global narcotic landscape has changed somewhat since responses were submitted – and it’s worth considering that respondents to the Global Drug Survey tend to be more drug-literate than other members of the general public.

To take part anonymously in the 2021 Global Drug Survey, click here.

Regardless, psychedelic use has been increasing, with recent research by Release suggesting they were the third most popular illegal substance – following cannabis and cocaine – between April and September of 2020.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the Global Drug Survey’s results.

Microdosing is popular, but (lots of) people aren’t doing it right

Microdosing was widespread among respondents: one quarter of those who had taken LSD in the last 12 months (plus 23.1 percent of recent magic mushroom users) had attempted the practice.

While a 2020 international review paper describes microdosing as a “procedure that includes multiple dosing sessions”, 46.7 percent of LSD Global Drug Survey microdosers only used one-off doses. This suggests some users are possibly not clear on the expectations of the wellbeing fad popularised in California.

“Perhaps people taking one-off doses do that to be more concentrated or creative on a day [they need to be] because they have read claims that it does these things,” says Professor Kim Kuypers from Maastricht University, who led this section of the study.

New Imperial College research suggests that microdosing could be a placebo, but Kuypers suggests it isn’t without merit, pointing to a previous study that found single low doses of LSD can enhance attention span and mood. “It is dependent on the individual though,” she adds.

The sexes self-treat differently

6,500 respondents took part in a section analysing people who use illegal drugs to self-treat a psychiatric condition or emotional distress, with recent studies linking psilocybin (magic mushrooms), ketamine, LSD and MDMA to the treatment of mental health disorders and addiction.

Women were much more likely to use MDMA for self-treatment (35.4 percent of female users, followed by LSD at 25.3 percent), with men more likely to use LSD (38.7 percent, followed by magic mushrooms at 22.2 percent). There were notable differences in their reasons for self-medicating: 40.2 percent of men were hoping to treat depression (compared to 31.7 percent of women), while women recorded significantly higher numbers for trauma (9.2 percent, against 3.4 percent of men) and PTSD (5.9 percent over 3.3 percent for males). 4.6 percent of men, compared to 2.1 percent of women, were self-treating for alcohol or substance use.

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Carly Barton is a co-founder of PlantEd Collective, which advocates the use of plant medicines. She says that “with men, it often seems that the reconnection to emotional responses is the biggest shift – allowing emotions that maybe the majority of women already have a connection to. The response from men is often, ‘I can let myself feel,’ whereas with women it’s often, ‘I feel much more comfortable processing my trauma.’ It’s not always the case, but we do see these differences.”

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Image: COLORFUL ABSTRACT PATTERNS / Alamy Stock Photo

Supervised use gets results

Eight-hundred respondents to the survey completed a section about using psychedelics under supervision to self-treat. Unsurprisingly, the most common trip-sitter was a friend or partner (37 percent), with LSD the most used substance (21.3 percent) under supervision, followed by magic mushrooms (19 percent) and ayahuasca (17.9 percent).

Perhaps the most telling figures were those of people reporting positive outcomes, with 86 percent of respondents saying that the experience was helpful, 79.3 percent saying they’d recommend a supervised session and 89.8 percent reporting that they’d take psychedelics again under legal circumstances.

Despite these results, Professor Adam Winstock, founder of Global Drug Survey, advises caution for those expecting to spontaneously trip themselves to emotional wellness": “It’s worrying that people will use when they are most desperate – when they’re most vulnerable and that drugs will potentially exacerbate the mood they’re in.”

Pick your shaman wisely

Of those who used an outsider – like a neo-shaman (17.8 percent of users) or indigenous shaman (12.6 percent, and commonly associated with ayahuasca) – to guide their self-treatment trip, nearly three-quarters had screening for medical history. Over 70 percent received screening for substance use issues or physical and mental health history, 52 percent received a preparatory session and 52.3 had an “integration session” following their trip.

“Psychedelic-assisted therapy is like a sandwich,” says Adam Winstock. “There’s the preparatory session. The session itself. And post integration, that allows you to reflect with a clear mind on what changes you will implement in your life.”

While these numbers show a majority of respondents experienced positive results, there’s a considerable risk that the most vulnerable might embark on a journey they’re not suited to, or that they don’t get the treatment to ensure the desired outcome.

The Global Drug Survey report notes that the results underline “the need to conduct further research to determine the most effective therapeutic applications and benefits of use in other environments, focusing on the person’s intention, their state of mind, as well as the optimal environment to have these experiences”.

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