If you’ve ever suffered from the insidious effects of racism — depression, headaches, insomnia, anxiety — Dr. Monnica T. Williams would like to take you on a trip to help you heal from the trauma. But it’s not a vacation, it takes just a few hours, and you won’t need any luggage.
That’s because the journey is literally inside your mind, courtesy of psychedelic drugs.
Williams, a psychologist, researcher, and professor at the University of Ottawa, is among a small but growing cadre of mental health professionals who are calling for the legal use of presently illegal hallucinogenic substances like LSD, ecstasy, and psilocybin “magic” mushrooms to help patients cope with being Black in America.
Although research has been limited, studies have shown that psychedelics, administered in a controlled or clinical setting, could revolutionize behavioral health care for Black people. The clinical director of the Behavioral Wellness Clinic in Connecticut, Williams has used the substances to help clients struggling with symptoms of race-related PTSD.
Psychedelic drugs like MDMA or ketamine “allow people to step back from their experiences and get a bigger picture” of how systemic racism and racist incidents have affected their mental health, she says. “Because when you’re in the middle of it, it’s really hard sometimes to make sense out of what’s happening. You just know you don’t feel good. And you know that somebody’s wronged you.”
Moreover, “I find sometimes people come to me — they’re so traumatized from racism they don’t even have words to describe what’s been happening to them,” and they’ve internalized the harm, Williams says. Yet after using a psychedelic trip or two to unpack the trauma, she says, “People realize, ‘Oh, wait — that wasn’t my fault.’”
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Though it’s illegal at the federal level in the U.S., the use of psychedelic substances for medicinal purposes is nothing new.
The use of hallucinogens in healing or sacred rituals is common in Indigenous cultures, including among African tribes. Indeed, scientists are using ibogaine, an African psychedelic plant, to develop a breakthrough drug for treating depression and substance use disorder.
In the U.S., meanwhile, some clinicians are turning to psychedelics to treat acute PTSD in combat veterans and sexual abuse survivors. And Oregon recently legalized the sale and recreational use of psychedelic drugs.
“It’s a system of healing,” Williams says. “It’s not like, you just take a psychedelic, you have a groovy experience, and then you’re healed. It is really an adjunct to therapy,” akin to commonly prescribed drugs like Prozac or Xanax.
In her sessions, “we do the two-therapist model,” with Williams and another mental-health professional in attendance, monitoring the client, she says. “We have a regular psychotherapy session with the client,” learning about their trauma.
After measuring their vital signs and preparing them for the journey, Williams hands them two lozenges, typically ketamine. Then, with soft background music playing, “they start to feel the effects” and relax on a chaise or a bed.
The trip, Williams says, is largely self-guided: some describe out loud what they’re experiencing; others simply observe. Still, others may engage with or relive specific racist harms and rewrite the outcome.
Afterward, Williams says, there is a debrief, and the client is sent home. Following a night of rest and reflection, the client and the therapists meet again, talk over the experience — and the client takes another trip. “We do that cycle about three times,” she says.
Though there are relatively few studies examining psychedelic therapy as a treatment for racial trauma, her analysis of available data indicates the treatment has promise, says Williams, who has co-authored several research papers on the subject. Patients who have taken hallucinogens, she says, later reported “reductions in racial trauma symptoms — stress and anxiety and depression. So this was very exciting for us to see the first quantitative data.”
Ironically, that potential is being thwarted by familiar impediments: racism and bureaucracy.
Williams says studies have found that Black researchers like her “are disadvantaged at every single step of the process,” particularly when applying for grants to study illicit substances like psilocybin as therapy for race-based PTSD. At the same time, the federal government classifies hallucinogens as Schedule 1 drugs — illegal substances with no medicinal value and high potential for abuse — in part because of the War on Drugs, a law enforcement policy that disproportionately harmed Black communities.
As a result, Williams has done her research largely in Canada, and conducts psychedelic therapy sessions during group retreats in places like Jamaica and Ecuador.
Still, “I think (psychedelics) hold unique promise for anybody with any kind of trauma,” Williams says. It could be particularly effective for Black people, she says, “because we don’t have access to all of the same efficacious tools for healing, and there hasn’t been as much interest — or research and development — in those tools for us.”
“This is something that we can use in our own communities, to help each other heal.”
This story was produced in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.