Psychedelic helpline shows promise in helping to manage safety issues and emotional challenges

The presence of a psychedelic helpline appears to be beneficial in averting harmful outcomes and alleviating the burden on emergency services, according to new research published in Psychedelic Medicine.

There is emerging evidence supporting the efficacy of psychedelic substances like psilocybin and MDMA in clinical research settings. But the authors behind the new study were concerned about the lack of safeguards in nonclinical settings where psychedelic use is increasing, leading to potential psychological risks and burdens on emergency services.

The researchers aimed to explore ways to reduce the risks associated with nonclinical psychedelics use and investigate the feasibility of implementing peer support systems, inspired by existing helplines, to provide support and harm reduction in community mental health contexts.

To gather data for the study, the researchers conducted a pilot study using information obtained from a psychedelic helpline operated by the nonprofit organization Fireside Project. The helpline is staffed by trained volunteers who undergo a 50-hour training program.

“I’ve been a proponent of psychedelic risk reduction since I first began volunteering as a ‘sitter’ in festival settings,” said study author Mollie M. Pleet, a licensed psychologist and member of the Social Neuroscience and Psychotherapy Lab. “Here, teams of medical staff and volunteers offer safety and grounding to help people manage the psychological, emotional, and spiritual challenges that can arise within psychedelic states. After years of serving in this capacity, I’ve witnessed how peer support can be a powerful tool in helping people feel safe enough to transform their own difficult experiences into insights and healing.”

“Considering how many people use psychedelics in their private lives, I’ve long been curious as to whether psychedelic peer support could be useful outside of festival settings. Since Fireside is the world’s first psychedelic helpline, I was eager to get involved.”

For this study, the researchers analyzed data from two sources regularly used by Fireside Project to gather information from callers. The first source was an anonymous survey sent to callers 24 hours after their conversation with the helpline (848 responses were received). The survey aimed to gather feedback and insights from the callers. The second source was 4,047 call logs completed by the peer-support specialists after each conversation. The call logs included specific questions with answer choices.

The call logs revealed that callers reported a range of difficult emotions during their psychedelic experiences, including fear, anxiety, confusion, and overwhelm. A significant number of callers (27.4%) also mentioned having underlying psychiatric conditions when discussing their current or past psychedelic experiences. Among the callers who were in the midst of a psychedelic experience, 39.9% reported taking psychedelics alone. Most of these callers (77.0%) were at home during the experience.

“I was surprised to learn that almost 40% of the helpline callers reported taking psychedelics alone, without other people present. While many people might find solo psychedelic use to feel calmer and therefore safer, I felt concerned imagining what many of these people would do if an issue arose. I imagine that a psychedelic helpline could be especially useful for people who find themselves in those situations.”

The researchers also found evidence that the helpline helped individuals cope with difficult emotions and experiences related to psychedelic use. Roughly 66% of callers reported that the helpline played a significant role in de-escalating their emotional, mental, or physical distress.

“Our main takeaway is that the psychedelic helpline we reviewed shows promise in helping callers manage the safety issues and emotional challenges sometimes associated with psychedelic experiences.”

In addition, 12.5% indicated that if not for their conversation with a peer-support specialist, they may have called emergency services (9-1-1), 10.8% indicated they may have gone to the emergency room, and 29.3% indicated they may have been physically or emotionally harmed.

“The Fireside helpline was demonstrated to provide professional peer support and guidance that previously has not existed. Without this resource, many of the callers stated they might have dialed 9-1-1 or gone to the emergency room, which are often not appropriate environments for those in the midst of psychedelic crises.”

The study, “Reducing the Harms of Nonclinical Psychedelics Use Through a Peer-Support Telephone Helpline“, was authored by Mollie M. Pleet, Joshua White, Joseph A. Zamaria, and Rachel Yehuda.

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