Psychedelic therapy may be useful in reducing IPV among repeat offenders.

Psychedelic therapy may help reduce intimate partner violence among repeat offenders. Image Source: Wikimedia user IronGargoyle.

One in four women and one in seven men will be victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) at some point during their lives. These victims often suffer severe economic, physical, and social consequences due to their abuse, and the effects of IPV can last for years. At the moment, most resources that address IPV are geared towards helping victims, but what if we could stop IPV before it happens or keep people who have committed IPV once from becoming repeat offenders? One possible solution comes from a seemingly unlikely source: psychedelics.

A recent study followed 302 convicted criminals after they left prison. All the participants had some form of substance abuse problem—which generally has a high correlation with IPV—although not all the men were serving time for violent crimes. 56% of the men reported taking psychedelics while 44% did not. Over the next six years, only 27% of the men who had taken psychedelics were arrested for IPV, but 42% of the men who did not take psychedelics were arrested for IPV. This study shows that there is a connection between psychedelic use and a reduced likelihood of committing IPV, but further studies will be needed to find out whether psychedelic use truly reduces the likelihood of IPV or if the two issues are related through another factor. Still, researchers believe there is potential to harness the positive effects of psychedelics and use psychedelic therapy to help stop IPV by decreasing aggression.

The Opportunity for a Transcendent Spiritual Experience

One of the main methods of psychedelic therapy relies on the creation of a profound spiritual experience within the patient. This method involves giving the patient a relatively high dose of the psychedelic and then allowing them to reflect inward while in a quiet, comfortable environment. Patients who have taken psilocybin this way have reported feelings of interconnection, bliss, and higher understanding. Similar experiences have been reported with LSD and other classic psychedelics.

These powerful spiritual experiences can help an individual evaluate their current life and their priorities. When put into the proper context with the help of a therapist, patients may become more compassionate and tolerant of others. A 2006 study of psilocybin showed that participants had increased positive relationships and an increased desire to help others. Patients may also experience a revelation regarding the importance of their interpersonal relationships and have a stronger need to protect these relationships. And when a person is compassionate and tolerant of their significant other, they are more likely to exercise self-control and avoid harming their partner.

Reducing Dependency On Other Substances

It is still unclear whether substance abuse contributes to higher rates of IPV or whether people who commit IPV are simply more likely to abuse substances such as alcohol. But experts believe that substance abuse may contribute to IPV by corroding the quality of the relationship over time and decreasing cognitive processing that helps people practice restraint during tense situations. 

Psychedelics have been considered a plausible treatment for addiction since the 1950’s. Classic psychedelics—such as LSD and psilocybin—may be used to treat addiction through the previously mentioned spiritual experience, but other psychedelics work in different ways. Kambo, which is currently legal in the United States, may treat addiction by increasing social bonding and healthy interactions. Ibogaine does its part by eliminating withdrawal symptoms and potentially producing a significant spiritual experience at the same time. The best psychedelic for treating an individual with a history of substance abuse depends on the root causes of their addiction, so it is important that an individual works with their therapist to create a treatment plan specific to their needs. But with all the options available, it is likely that some form of psychedelic therapy would be successful in treating most cases of substance abuse, which, in turn, could decrease the risk of an individual repeatedly engaging in IPV.

Addressing the Physical Causes of Aggression

There are also long-term biological responses to psychedelic use that may reduce abnormal aggression, a condition which has a variety of neurological factors. Researchers believe a reduction in serotonin levels in the prefrontal cortex can cause increased anger and aggression. Both LSD and psilocybin help regulate the serotonin system, and similar to anti-depressants, they down-regulate 5HT2 receptors in the brain, which helps balance a naturally low amount of serotonin. However, unlike currently prescribed anti-depressants that need to be taken daily, psychedelics have a long-lasting effect after just a single use.

Another cause of aggression can be reduced function of the prefrontal cortex and increased activity in the amygdala. Together, these two abnormalities result in increased fear and stress and a decreased ability to make decisions based on morality. However, MDMA decreases activity in the amygdala and increases activity in the prefrontal cortex during use. With appropriate therapy, the mental state that MDMA produces can be used to teach alternative emotional responses to stimulants that currently inspire fear, anger, or aggression.

Because of the prevalence of IPV and the devastating effects it has on its victims, it is critical that researchers continue to explore solutions that will reduce IPV, especially in repeat offenders. Psychedelic therapy addresses multiple factors that contribute to IPV, so it may be the best option for fast, efficient treatment. While psychedelic therapy may not address all the aspects of this complicated issue, IPV should be a priority in the field of psychedelic therapy research. As the field progresses and more psychedelic therapy options become developed and available to the general public, social workers and correctional officers should be taught to refer IPV perpetrators to a psychedelic therapist for evaluation and treatment.