Can Psychedelics Help Alleviate Racial Trauma?

    A new study suggests that a single powerful experience with psychedelic drugs can help reduce negative mental health outcomes of racism experienced by people of color. It found that those who used psychedelics experienced a noticeable reduction in traumatic stress and depression caused by racial discrimination. The research is welcome in a field that has historically neglected people of color.

    The study was published in Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy and focused specifically on psilocybin mushrooms, LSD and MDMA. It recruited over 300 participants from the US and Canada who identified as Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American/Indigenous Canadian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. All of them self-reported having used psychedelics previously, and that doing so had provided “relief from the challenging effects of racial discrimination,” including physical violence. 

    They were asked to respond to online questions evaluating symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression 30 days before and 30 days after using a psychedelic. Overall, participants all experienced improved mental health outcomes in the month after their psychedelic use. The most significant changes were reductions in stress or trauma related to discrimination, as well as reductions in anxiety and depression.

    The more powerful the psychedelic experience, the greater the mental health improvements. The participants who benefited most were those who felt their psychedelic experience was spiritual in nature, or that it increased their self-awareness and understanding. 

     

    A Need for Further Study

    One vulnerability of these findings is the potential for bias in self-reporting—all of the recruited participants were people who claimed to have benefited from psychedelic use. Future research might benefit from recruiting a representative sample (from, for example, the general population of Black Americans), and using a similar survey method to see what percentage of that group reports beneficial psychedelic use—there might be differences based on other factors like age, gender or income. 

    “To [control for self-reporting bias], we would need to conduct a population-based survey which is impossible [for us] because of the cost,” co-author Alan K. Davis told Filter. “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.”

    Researchers could also look to data like the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and estimate psychedelic use among different racial or ethnic groups, and what mental health outcomes they experience.

    The NSDUH is administered every year in all 50 US states and DC. It studies drug use habits and health outcomes of Americans; about 70,000 people participated in 2020. Davis suggests future research should employ this study to help estimate what percentages of certain racial or ethnic groups use psychedelic drugs, as well as their subsequent mental health outcomes. He and his co-authors are currently developing such a study.

    Unfortunately, the NSDUH groups all psychedelics under one category—“hallucinogens”—which limits the specific conclusions to be drawn from the data. Meanwhile, the federal status of psychedelic drugs as Schedule I narcotics effectively stifles the majority of research.

     

    Racial Justice in Research

    Davis’s research is still much-needed in the field of psychedelic science. Despite advances, much existing research has failed to study how people of color use psychedelics or what potential benefits they may find from them. 

    This has real-world consequences—if researchers design an MDMA treatment for PTSD, for example, but haven’t studied the needs of patients of color, they risk making their treatment at best ineffective and at worst harmful. Effective psychedelic treatment needs to address racial inequalities that are common across the medical field. A majority of Black Americans, for example, distrust the medical system, while Black women experience deadly disparities in maternal care.

    As psychedelic mental health research expands, it is imperative that scientists prioritize marginalized groups that have been historically excluded. After all—the people being shut out of these treatments are often those who could benefit most.

     


     

    Photograph via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

    • Alexander Lekhtman

      Alexander’s journalism covers the policy, science and culture of drugs. His journey began as an activist with Students for Sensible Drug Policy at New York University, where he served as president, helping organize marijuana legalization and “Ban the Box” campaigns. He was also an organizer for the 2017 New York City Cannabis Parade. His drug journalism career began in 2016, and his work has been published in High Times, Leafly, Merry Jane, AlterNet, Psymposia and Psychedelic Times. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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