Attitudes towards the use of psychedelic drugs (e.g. psilocybin) to treat mental health conditions

What did we do?

The Neuromedicines Discovery Centre commissioned BehaviourWorks Australia to conduct a survey of adult Australians to measure their attitudes towards the use of psychedelic drugs (e.g. psilocybin) to treat mental health conditions in medically controlled or supervised environments.

In mid-2022, a total of 1719 Australian adults (complete responses: n = 1468) responded to an online survey capturing sociodemographics (e.g. political alignment, postcode), knowledge about and attitudes towards psychedelic drugs including the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of mental illness, attitudes toward funding of research, and attitudes toward the use of psychedelic drugs for the treatment of different mental health conditions (e.g. mild depression, alcohol use disorder).

Who participated?

By design, most respondents were located in Victoria. Most also lived in metropolitan areas, were born in Australia, spoke only English, had completed tertiary education and were not religious. Approximately 50% of respondents were female and about the same were employed full-time. Half of the sample had personally experienced a mental health condition. Approximately one third of respondents worked in the health care and social assistance, or education and training industries and a similar proportion lived as a couple without children and were politically aligned with the Australian Labor Party (ALP). On average, respondents trusted doctors and scientists the most, and the media and Federal / State governments the least.

Attitudes towards medicinal use of psychedelic drugs

Respondents tended to approve of psychedelic and non-psychedelic (e.g. ketamine) drugs for medically supervised use more than recreational use. More respondents agreed than disagreed that they find psychedelic assisted treatment to be acceptable and that psychedelic drugs:

  • Show promise in treating mental health conditions;
  • May improve outcomes when used during talking therapy;
  • Deserve further research for treatment of mental health conditions;
  • Should continue to be tested for medicinal value; and
  • Should be approved for use to treat mental health conditions in supervised medical settings.

The influence of political alignment

Most respondents agreed that the government should fund research into the use of psychedelic drugs to treat mental health conditions; on average, the level of agreement increased slightly, but not significantly, as respondents progressed through the questionnaire and became more familiar with the topic. The political party respondents most aligned with explained only a small amount of the variance in attitudes to government funding. Therefore, it is likely that political alignment does not largely influence attitudes. Those aligned with the Greens were more supportive of government funding compared to those aligned with the ALP. Those aligned with the Liberals, One Nation and the Nationals were slightly less likely than those aligned with the ALP to support government funding.

The challenge:
Understanding how adult Australians to measure their attitudes towards the use of psychedelic drugs (e.g. psilocybin) to treat mental health conditions
Partners:
The Neuromedicines Discovery Centre
When:
2022

Support for further research and areas of use

Attitudes toward further research into the use of psychedelic drugs to treat mental health conditions were generally favourable. Two in five respondents consider psychedelic assisted treatment acceptable, with a further two in five undecided about their view. Those with prior personal experience of a mental health condition (diagnosed or undiagnosed) had significantly more favourable attitudes toward psychedelic assisted treatment than those without prior personal experience. Attitudes also tended to be significantly more favourable amongst younger people, and those who had completed higher levels of education. Overall, knowledge of, and understanding about, psychedelic drugs for the treatment of mental health conditions was generally low. Attitudes of respondents towards the use of psychedelic drugs for the treatment of different mental health conditions was more positive for severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than for eating disorders, mild depression, and alcohol use disorders. However, most respondents appeared to be undecided on their attitudes towards the use of psychedelic drugs to treat different mental health conditions, as suggested by the large proportion of ‘neither agree nor disagree’ responses.

Implications

This sample of Australian adults appear cautiously supportive of the use of psychedelic drugs to treat mental health conditions in medically supervised environments. They support research into the topic and the government funding of such research. However, when asked about their attitudes towards the use of psychedelic drugs for the treatment of specific conditions, rather than simply research into these treatments, respondents appeared more cautious with a majority undecided about their level of support. This research suggests some potential for attitude change. Clear messaging will be important for harnessing community support, such as emphasising the level of medical supervision, as well as regulation that will be involved. Using scenarios that evoke empathy (e.g. targeting mental health concerns resultant from unimaginable tragedy, or that are difficult to treat) and messages delivered by trusted entities (e.g., doctors and scientists) may also be useful for enhancing community support. Widespread communication campaigns to enhance community support should be targeted toward specific groups, with political alignment unlikely to be an important consideration. Such groups should contain those currently less positive on the topic, such as men, older adults and less educated adults. Campaigns should also be designed with support from influential advocacy groups, to further add to the trustworthiness of the message. Finally, effective messages to establish government and advocacy group support are likely to be different to the general community, suggesting that designing these messages should be completed once the next stage of this work is finalised.

Citation

Kunstler, B., Hatty, M., Genat, A., Smith, L., Goodwin, D., & Langmead, C. Attitudes and beliefs aboutthe medically supervised use of psychedelic medications for the treatment of mental health conditions. Melbourne, Australia: BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University, November 2022.

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