Psychedelic Drugs

Study suggests psychedelics may improve the mental health symptoms of individuals suffering from race-based trauma

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New research suggests that psychedelics may be a viable treatment option for those suffering from race-based trauma. An observational study, published in Drugs: Education, Prevention & Policy, found that psychedelic experiences were linked to reduced anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms among sufferers of racial trauma.

Race-based trauma can be described as trauma resulting from harmful experiences of racism and discrimination which may include physical and verbal assaults. Studies suggest that racial trauma is common among black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and that even subtle forms of color-blind ideology can provoke lasting mental health consequences. This experience of trauma is linked to heightened anxiety and depression and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Study authors Monnica Williams and her team point out that the issue is especially concerning since the BIPOC community faces systemic difficulties when accessing mental health care.

“Although several studies have shown that existing treatments may be effective for reducing PTSD symptoms among BIPOC, the development of treatments for racial trauma are sorely lacking,” Williams and her colleagues say, highlighting that the effects of psychedelics have been gravely underexplored among people of color.

In the first study of its kind, the researchers investigated whether classic psychedelics might assist the healing of BIPOC suffering from racial trauma.

The researchers recruited a sample of 313 BIPOC who had taken a dose of either psilocybin, LSD, or MDMA and indicated that it had provided “relief from the challenging effects of ethnic discrimination.” The sample had an average age of 33 and respondents resided in either Canada or the United States.

Respondents answered a series of questions about their experiences with racial or ethnic discrimination across a variety of settings (e.g., community, employment, healthcare). They also answered questions about a single memorable experience with a psychedelic drug, reporting any mystical-type experiences or challenges associated with the substance use. Finally, they reported symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression both before and after the psychedelic experience.

When analyzing the data, the researchers observed an overall decrease in trauma symptoms, depressive symptoms, and anxiety symptoms following the psychedelic experience.

It also appeared that the intensity of the psychedelic experience was important. The data showed that those who reported the most intense acute psychedelic effects also reported the greatest reduction in psychological symptoms. In particular, the intensity of the mystical-type experiences was robustly linked to improved symptoms, which falls in line with research suggesting that mystical-type experiences are beneficial to mental health.

The researchers say that challenging experiences (e.g., sadness, isolation, fears of death) associated with psychedelic use appeared to be detrimental to respondents’ psychological symptoms, suggesting that psychedelic therapists should take care to guide patients through the process in attempt to reduce these negative experiences. In terms of unique challenges faced by BIPOC, the authors note, “it would also be important for therapists and guides to have training in culturally-informed approaches and/or be ethnically matched with clients, which would necessitate the training of more diverse psychedelic-assisted therapists (Williams et al., 2019).”

Two prominent limitations of the study were that it relied on participant recall which may lead to inaccurate reports and that the sample of respondents was selected to include only those who had reported positive benefits associated with psychedelic experiences. The authors stress that their findings should not be interpreted to mean that psychedelic experiences would be beneficial for all BIPOC dealing with raced-based trauma.

Still, the findings offer a possible avenue of healing for those dealing with racial trauma. “As long as discrimination exists, there will be a need for effective treatments to help people suffering from racial trauma,” Williams and her colleagues emphasize. “The next important step in this work is to conduct clinical trials to determine if the results of this investigation would be replicated in a controlled setting.”

The study, “People of color in North America report improvements in racial trauma and mental health symptoms following psychedelic experiences”, was authored by Monnica T. Williams, Alan K. Davis, Yitong Xin, Nathan D. Sepeda, Pamela Colón Grigas, Sinead Sinnott, and Angela M. Haeny.