Psychedelic experience may lessen trauma of racial injustice

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A single positive experience on a psychedelic drug may help reduce stress, depression, and anxiety symptoms in Black, Indigenous, and people of color whose encounters with racism have had lasting harm, according to a new study published in the journal Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy.

A growing body of research has suggested psychedelics have a place in therapy, especially when administered in a controlled setting. What previous mental health research has generally lacked, the researchers noted, is a focus on people of color and on treatment that could specifically address the trauma of chronic exposure to racism.

For the retrospective study, researchers recruited participants in the United States and Canada, assembling a sample of 313 people who reported they had taken a dose of a psychedelic drug in the past that they believed contributed to "relief from the challenging effects of racial discrimination." The sample comprised adults who identified as Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American/Indigenous Canadian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander, according to the study.

Once enrolled, participants completed questionnaires collecting information on their past experiences with racial trauma, psychedelic use, and mental health symptoms, and were asked to recall a memorable psychedelic experience and its short-term and enduring effects. Those experiences had occurred as recently as a few months before the study and as long ago as at least 10 years earlier.

In the study, participants reported that their trauma-related symptoms linked to racist acts were lowered in the 30 days after an experience with either psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), or ecstasy (MDMA). Overall, the study also showed that the more intensely spiritual and insightful the psychedelic experience was, the more significant the recalled decreases in trauma-related symptoms were.

The discrimination they had encountered included unfair treatment by neighbors, teachers, and bosses, false accusations of unethical behavior, and physical violence. The most commonly reported issues involved feelings of severe anger about being subjected to a racist act and wanting to "tell someone off" for racist behavior but saying nothing instead, according to the study.

Researchers asked participants to recall the severity of symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress linked to exposure to racial injustice in the 30 days before and 30 days after the experience with psychedelic drugs. Considering the probability that being subjected to racism is a lifelong problem rather than a single event, the researchers said they also assessed symptoms characteristic of people suffering from discrimination-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Participants were also asked to report on the intensity of three common kinds of experiences people have while under the influence of psychedelic drugs: a mystical, insightful, or challenging experience. A mystical experience can feel like a spiritual connection to the divine, an insightful experience increases people's awareness and understanding about themselves, and a challenging experience relates to emotional and physical reactions such as anxiety or difficulty breathing.

All participants recalled their anxiety, depression, and stress symptoms after the memorable psychedelic experience were lower than they had been before the drug use. The magnitude of the positive effects of the psychedelics influenced their reduction in symptoms, the study said.

The researchers noted in the paper that the study had limitations because the findings were based on participant recall and the entire sample of recruited research volunteers had reported benefits they associated with their psychedelic experience, meaning it cannot be assumed that psychedelics will help all people of color with racial trauma. The researchers are working on proposals for clinical trials to further investigate the effects of psychedelics on mental health symptoms in specific populations, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

"This was really the first step in exploring whether people of color are experiencing benefits of psychedelics and, in particular, looking at a relevant feature of their mental health, which is their experience of racial trauma," Alan Davis, PhD co-lead author of the study and an assistant professor of social work at The Ohio State University, in a statement. "This study helps to start that conversation with this emerging treatment paradigm."