Our interest in psychedelic medicines here at No Fallen Heroes comes from the proven ability of two of them, psilocybin and MDMA, to help treat major suicide risk factors. Because our goal is to help reduce and eliminate veteran suicide we are always interested in other promising therapies for suicide risk factors and the prevention of suicide. We recently wrote about a psychedelic that has been used for centuries in ceremonial and treatment settings and appears to have effects similar to those seen in MDMA and psilocybin. It is Ayahuasca. Does Ayahuasca prevent suicide?
Ayahuasca is a brewed medicine derived from two plants that grow naturally in the Northwest Amazon. It is used in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil. The Psychotria viridis shrub along with the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine are brewed like tea to create Ayahuasca. This concoction has been used for centuries in this region, in formal settings for treatment or ceremonial purposes. Those who use this medicine aim for a sense of togetherness and relief of anxiety or depression. Recent studies using modern procedures have shown promising results.
Study Regarding Ayahuasca and Suicide
Ayahuasca has been studied in research settings similar to those that found MDMA and psilocybin to be useful. The researchers note that we have known for years that Ayahuasca is effective in reducing depression and hopelessness. Their study involved giving a person with depression that had been resistant to treatment one dose of Ayahuasca or a placebo. A trained psychiatrist evaluated both groups before and at 1, 2 and 7 days post treatment. The psychiatrist did not know which patients received placebo to Ayahuasca. The study showed that patients receiving Ayahuasca achieve better results than those receiving a placebo in treatment of their depression. This study looked at the treatment of depression, a risk factor for suicide. It has not as of this time reported any results regarding suicide in the treatment and placebo groups.
How to Show That Ayahuasca Is a Viable Way to Prevent Suicide
The gold standard for assessing is a drug like Ayahuasca helps prevent suicide is to follow the patients involved in a study for years to see if any commit suicide and, if so, if the belonged to the treatment group or control (placebo) group. Such a study would also need to control for confounding variables such as which persons had depression, which had PTSD, which were socially isolated, which had traumatic brain syndrome, and which received other therapies. Because this sort of analysis can be very complex it is more common to see studies that focus on just one condition like PTSD, depression, or substance abuse disorders in order to ascertain effectiveness of a suicide risk factor.
How Ayahuasca Could Become an Accepted Therapy for Preventing Suicide
Is the USA the Food and Drug Administration is in charge of determining if a medicine or other treatment is sufficiently safe and effective to allow it to be used by professionals or over-the-counter to treat a specified condition. Both psilocybin and MDMA are currently in clinical trials to see if they pass all of the FDA hurdles on the way to being approved. Both of these psychedelic medicines have done so well in early studies that they have been given special status as breakthrough therapies which helps speed their passage through the various trials. Ayahuasca will need to go through the same sorts of testing.
The FDA’s first requirement is that a prospective medicine does no harm when given in the manner and dosage prescribed. The fact that Ayahuasca had been used without evidence of great harm for hundreds of years implies that safety will not be an issue but controlled studies still need to demonstrate the same thing.
The next phase of testing is to show that the medicine works to make the patient better whether better is improvement of a cancer, eradication of an infection, or relief of depression. The problem for Ayahuasca or any psychedelic medicine for showing that it reduces the incidence of suicide is that such studies could take years or decades to provide proof. Thus, it is more common to see treatment of risk factors like depression, PTSD, substance abuse, or other afflictions as the treatment goal in the near term.
The last phase requires that the medicine being tested, like Ayahuasca, works better than placebo when used in the exact treatment regime to be used. The issue here is that MDMA and psilocybin are effective adjunct therapies for depression and PTSD when used in a specific setting. A person takes the medicine and goes through their therapy session with a coach or therapist especially trained to deal with their issues. The therapy session itself helps the patient and medicine makes the therapy more effective. Ayahuasca will need to show that adding it to standard therapy makes a statistical difference in treatment a suicide risk factor like depression and then, as time passes, makes a difference in the incidence of suicide.