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Use of psychedelic drugs may reduce the risk of suicide in female sex workers
Liz Highleyman, 2017-05-24 07:30:00
Women sex workers who used psychedelic drugs such as
LSD were less likely to think about or attempt suicide, while some other drugs
increased the risk, according to study results presented at the 25th International Harm
Reduction Conference (HR17) this week in Montréal.
Elena Argento of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence
in HIV/AIDS presented findings from a study looking at suicidality – a term
encompassing suicide ideation and attempts – among women in the AESHA (An
Evaluation of Sex Workers Health Access) cohort of Vancouver sex workers.
The researchers looked at whether use of psychedelic
drugs – including LSD, psilocybin, ecstasy or MDMA, ayahuasca and mescaline –
could have a protective effect.
Sex workers are known to have disproportionately high
rates of social and health-related risks, including psychological distress and
suicide, Argento noted as background. She added that 80 to 90% of deaths by
suicide are attributable to mental health or substance use problems, compounded
by trauma, criminalisation, stigma, depression and lack of access to services.
AESHA recruited women (including transgender women)
age 14 and older who had exchanged sex for money in the past month through
community outreach at street, indoor and online sex work venues. Participants
completed interviewer-administered questionnaires twice a year.
Out of more than 700 women in the cohort, those who
reported that they had already thought about or attempted suicide – nearly half
– were excluded, leaving 290 women included in this analysis.
Nearly half of the participants reported a history of
child abuse, 37% said they had been harassed or arrested by police, and 14% had
experienced violence from clients. About a quarter said they had used
psychedelic drugs – considerably fewer than those who had used crack (63%),
cocaine (56%), heroin (49%) or crystal methamphetamine (31%).
During follow-up 31 women (11%) reported first-time
suicidal ideas or suicide attempts. In this group the median age was 36 years,
32% were of indigenous origin and 11% were HIV-positive.
Use of psychedelic drugs was associated with a 60% decrease
in the likelihood of suicidality in a multivariate analysis (adjusted hazard ratio
0.40). In contrast, use of crystal methamphetamine, childhood abuse and recent
homelessness were independent predictors of suicidality (adjusted hazard ratio 3.25,
3.54 and 1.95, respectively).
The effect of psychedelic drugs on serotonin receptors, which can alter memory processing and emotional
response, as well as an "increase in permeability between the conscious
and unconscious mind," were suggested as possible mechanisms.
"In the context of emerging evidence on the therapeutic potential
of psychedelics to treat mental health and substance use issues, our findings
demonstrate that psychedelic use is independently associated with reduced
suicidality, while other drug use and childhood trauma predispose sex workers
to suicidality," the researchers concluded.
"Our study found that naturalistic
psychedelic drug use was associated with a 60% reduced risk of suicidality
among sex workers, supporting calls to advance research on the therapeutic
utility of psychedelics to improve mental health," Argento said.
Psychedelics are also being explored
for treatment of opioid addiction, aiding smoking cessation and management of depression
and post-traumatic stress disorder.