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Trippy Talk: Racial Disparities in Psychedelic Culture

Trippy Talk: Racial Disparities in Psychedelic Culture

As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Monnica Williams specializes in mental health disparities and treatment for anxiety-related conditions. Currently, she is exploring the potential of psychedelic therapy to heal racial trauma, and providing a safe place with health care professionals that patients can trust. Considering the medical field’s track record, one could understand why a black person might not feel so comfortable going on a psychedelic trip with white doctors or taking part in a medical study that involves drugs.

Two years ago, with the support of MAPS, Dr. Williams got the funding to explore psychedelic-assisted therapy with patients at the University of Connecticut. Her study also extended to evaluating the effects of oppression on a broader scale. But getting on the phone with Williams, we came to find out that the University of Connecticut had recently shut the study down. They were uncomfortable, according to Williams, with her race, the racial makeup of her staff, and the topic in general.

With the psychedelic movement blooming, new studies appearing that continue to confirm the value of continuing the research into these substances, there is also a shadow dynamic in play. As we bring these substances aboveground, so do we, also, pull an entire history of racism up with them.

The chaos that a bit of talk of psychedelics brings. The drug war is just one, significant reflection of a much longer legacy. Though we may, in the psychedelic community, understand, even criticize, the underlying racism that pervades our culture, the division between us is evident within our circle. William’s research treats racism as a real factor in one’s mental health, and it is not a subject that has been sensitively and extensively explored. Thus we sat down with Monnica Williams to find out more about her research, and racism within our culture, the psychedelic community, and the importance of having these conversations though they are difficult.

Interview with Dr. Monnica Williams

About Monnica Williams: Monnica Williams, Ph.D. is a board-certified, licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapies. She is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Disparities, and Director of the Laboratory for Culture and Mental Health Disparities. She is also the Clinical Director of the Behavioral Wellness Clinic, LLC and serves on the Board of Directors for the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines.

RS: Tell me a little bit about the background of your research and what it is that you’re currently doing.

MW: I have several research areas. I’m a research chair of mental health disparities. So, everything I do falls under that umbrella which includes research surrounding mental health and how experiences of racism can impact mental health. Then, also barriers to treatment. inclusion in research, and also psychedelic medicine as well in the application of race-based trauma.

RS: Why is it important to create modalities that are sensitive to these issues?

MW: Because a lot of people of color, as well as people in other marginalized groups, have experienced traumatization due to experiences of oppression, marginalization, discrimination, hate crimes and so forth. Clinicians need to be able to help people who are suffering as a result.

RS: Where are you with your studies? What’s happening inside of this particular area of your research?

MW: This area of research is a little bit new to me. We haven’t had scholars in the field who’ve been able to do this research because of barriers to inclusion as far as even just having a seat at the table and in mental health in general. We’re really still in the process of developing instruments to measure these problems and to define them. We have to be able to measure them before we can develop interventions. Well, there are interventions, but we can’t really say if they work if we have no way of measuring how effective they are.

We developed a questionnaire called the Trauma Symptoms of Discrimination Scale, which was an early attempt at putting together something that we could use for our survey studies. I also developed a clinical interview, to gather information from clients, patients and others about their experiences of everything from hate crimes to micro-aggressions to everyday discrimination, and so forth. We’re developing another version of the interview to look at oppression more broadly, not just experiences of racism. Lastly, we’re developing a racial stress and trauma scale, which will be a self-report questionnaire specifically for experienced racism.

RS: Are you currently administering psychedelic-assisted therapy? 

MW: We were part of the MAPS study for a while at the University of UConn when I was there. But we’re not doing that anymore. Right now there was too much institutional resistance to be able to carry forward that study to phase three. So, we had to shut that down.

RS: What was the resistance?

MW: The university was uncomfortable with the work with MDMA, with working with people of color, with our team being people of color. With me being a principal investigator as a black woman. I mean, all of these things were problems.

This is one of the main reasons why I had to leave UConn [University of Connecticut]. I couldn’t do the psychedelic work there. I am starting again here in Canada. But it takes time to get my lab setup, move my projects over, and get new personnel. It’s not like I can just jump in and start treating patients with psychedelics. You know, it took two years to get the MAPS study started at the University of Connecticut. We’re all devastated.

RS: And as someone who was working with these substances, were they effective tools?

What I’ve seen, it’s been very helpful. There’s already been lots of research, looking at the substances and white people, and much, much less in people of color. The few people of color who have been treated, there’s been lots of lessons learned all around. MAPS has a program where they give the clinicians the same treatment, the MDMA-assisted therapy, as a way of training the clinicians in what to expect when they actually work with people. So our whole team went to Colorado and experienced this. Most of us had very meaningful, helpful experiences. But not everybody. Some problems were due to the lack of sensitivity and cultural knowledge on the part of the therapists. They didn’t know how to work with cultural material when it came up and to have conversations around experiences of racialization. 

They were able to course-correct. But there was still the individual who was harmed as a result.

RS: Because you deal with a lot of insensitivity, what information can I bring to those who aren’t in touch with this?

MW: People of color have a very different experience of life. It’s almost like a different reality because we’re treated so differently. Most white people don’t seem to realize nor understand the harm and the trauma we’ve experienced from racism, nor the challenges we face because of racialization. As a result, it contributes to a lack of understanding and a division among people. I would just challenge people to not shy away from these topics even though they may be uncomfortable. Because we can’t really get to where we want to be as a society without getting a good and honest understanding. of each other. People need to take an honest self-inventory of how they are contributing to the problem.

RS: First, isn’t that how are they contributing to the problem?

MW: Exactly. You know, I would ask people, how many? How many close friends do you have that are people of color? Some people have a very diverse friend group. And that’s fantastic. Probably learned a great deal from them. Some people don’t have any. Or, they have one person that maybe is not even a really good friend. And then I would say, “Okay, well challenge yourself. Why is that? And what can you do to diversify your own network?” And I’m not talking about going to soup kitchens and helping poor people. I’m talking about bringing people into your home and having them sit at your table. This is what has to change in our society.

RS: I had an unusual childhood in that I went through a series of families. I had the experience, I am grateful to say, that around my table, the people that I called my family were not my blood. My sister is black, and our family is Mexican. I’m Italian– white. And I knew that outside our front door, it had been a very different world for each us. That’s why I want to have these conversations. I can’t imagine how we move forward with psychedelics and their potential without addressing this history.

MW: Because of your experience, maybe you can understand what I’m saying. I’ve talked to some people who say they’d like to be more anti-racist, but not those exact words. They want to understand these issues better and appreciate them. I talked to them and realized that they don’t have a single person of color that is a friend. How can you care about what happens to these communities if there’s not even one person that you love who’s affected by these things? So people are insulated from what’s going on in the world. Because of the unspoken rules, and in our society, people end up living very segregated lives. It’s hard for people to really understand the problem because they actually have no exposure to it.

RS: And there’s an underlying, also, unconscious racism. People don’t necessarily understand their own prejudices in this regard, which is a big issue as well. Even just thinking about the concept of “expanding your mind,” we should reflect on this. There was a woman that I heard, a nursing professor in front of her class, who was teaching her class about sensitivity inpatient care. And she said out loud her class: “because of how I look, how I was brought up in this world, I am a racist. I come to the table with that history.”

MW: It’s true, important, and people need to be able to have those conversations. At the same time, there’s a lot of social punishment for having those conversations too. I’ve taught a multicultural psychology many times to undergrads. One year I said, “we’re all racists,” exactly for these reasons, “that we all have these unconscious biases.” The students were very, very upset. Some of them wrote really mean things in their course evaluations. They said that I called everyone racist. It’s hard to even have the conversation without people getting very angry and defensive. And once people are defensive, there’s really no information going in.

I also wanted to address what you said about the psychedelic movement. You know, a lot of people of color haven’t been included. I think it’s important for people to understand why people of color aren’t included. It’s not just because our social networks are segregated. There’s also a history that people need to need to know about, like you mentioned the war on drugs. But it’s not the only history.

There’s also history around people of color being used as guinea pigs for research, including psychedelic research, which no one has publicly apologized about nor taken ownership of. There’s so much racism everywhere. The amount of trust it takes to be with somebody when they’re in that vulnerable psychedelic state, right? I mean, I can’t even go to a yoga class and relax if it’s a room full of white women. It isn’t to say that there’s anyone bad white woman in the group, but you know, I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with white women. So how am I going to sit there, do yoga and relax? And you know, that’s just yoga. Imagine taking a psychedelic drug a room full of white people. That’s a big ask.

RS: Can we talk about a study that was done?

MW: There was a series of experiments done in the 60s with LSD at the Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Among other things, the researchers were looking to see things like how much LSD could we give somebody before their brain melted. These were all incarcerated black men that were the subjects of these studies. Now, they had a comparison group of white professionals who took LSD at the principal investigator’s home, which I guarantee was a very different experience than what those incarcerated black men had to endure. This was all justified because the black men who were incarcerated on drug crimes. So it was thought that since they had experienced with drugs, that it was not going to hurt them. Do you know how they paid them for their participation in the studies? They paid them in heroin.

RS: Wow.

MW: This is just what I’ve uncovered. I’m sure there are many many more pieces like this. But this research team in Kentucky, they published at least a dozen papers, so it wasn’t a secret. And of course, in their papers, they said, it was all voluntary, but we know how it was for people who are that marginalized.

RS: I came across this study from a couple of years ago. They were investigating the relationships between psychedelics and criminal behavior. The system places sole responsibility on these individuals when the system itself perpetuates this behavior and even creates the behavior. In terms of thinking about the levels of insensitivity, why don’t you conduct psychedelic-assisted therapy with law enforcement officials or judiciaries or people within the system? Perhaps they could benefit from a psychological reboot.

MW: Those times that you read about people of color being shot, or killed by police. The excuse often is: “We were afraid we thought they had drugs.” Nobody is going to drug test those cops? We know that they’re all on steroids, have ‘roid rage and some are taking drugs or they are confiscating them from people…

RS: There’s an organization that teaches a class called Undoing Racism. What they lead with is: first, you have to define what white culture is.

MW:  I often ask my students when I teach: “So, tell me about your ethnic group.” They look so confused. Because they tend to think of themselves as kind of non- racialized. “Tell me what it’s like to be a white American,” I ask. And they can’t do it. It’s bizarre because we all have a culture. You can’t tell me about your culture.

I’ve had to contend with some very powerful people in my field who are very dismissive of the whole concept as “pseudo-science.” They don’t see it. It doesn’t happen to them. So they’re having trouble respecting the experience of people of color who are saying, “no, it’s happening all the time.” They shouldn’t be able to weigh in on this; they have no experience with it. But for some reason, they’re taken seriously because they’re seen as leaders in the field. They’re given a platform but haven’t done any research. Then that perspective gets repeated in the media as fact. 

RS: To wrap up: how would you like to develop your work further?

MW: My hope is that I can continue the research that I had started, working with people of color. Those who have experienced racial traumas, and how psychedelics can be helpful to them. We started have a clinic in Connecticut, where we started offering ketamine treatment. And we’ve had some very, very good initial results with working with people who’ve had racial trauma. We would like to also explore other substances with people and just continue to inform how clinicians work with others who’ve had these experiences. Obviously, we don’t want to be the only ones doing this. We want people everywhere to be able to get this healing.

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