Should psychedelic healing be reserved for the racially privileged in our society? A look at the psychedelic space today says – yes.
For many minorities, being considered ‘different’ in certain social situations is not an unfamiliar feeling. As an Indian-Canadian woman, this notion surprisingly followed me into the spiritual and wellness spaces which I sought out to find a sense of community – especially when delving into the world of psychedelics.
The cognitive dissonance experienced by people of colour within holistic and wellness environments is an alienating ordeal – having our traditional practices be watered-down and packaged back to us in the name of capitalism, while being surrounded by those that fit the Western ideal of beauty, success, and spiritual vitality is rather awkward. Encountering these scenarios while attempting to suppress the familial guilt ingrained from years of cultural bias against the use of substances (including psychedelics) can be downright uncomfortable.
With the psychedelic renaissance underway, and anticipation buzzing over the possibilities of an industry budding with the potential to revolutionize our approach to mental health care in the near future, people of colour everywhere may need a moment to catch their breath and reflect on what exactly this means, before getting swept away with the hype. Although I’m a strong advocate for the therapeutic use of psychedelics due to their consciousness-expanding, empathy-inducing, and ‘divine realm’-experiencing capabilities, I can’t help but feel as though there are some very real challenges ahead while navigating this space when it comes to representation, equity, diversity and inclusion.
To put it quite bluntly – the psychedelic industry is extremely white. With the roots of psychedelic science from the 1950s almost completely highlighting the accomplishments of white men as its predecessors with little to no recognition for indigenous and ancient wisdom, to the current reality of the majority of clinical studies being comprised of white participants, researchers, and therapists (Michaels et al. 2018, 9), it appears as though we are inevitably on the trajectory of history repeating itself once again. What does this mean for marginalized communities who may be interested in using these sacred medicines for their own healing?
Psychedelics, Racial Attitudes, and Mental Health
Psychedelics are much more than just a component of ‘wellness’ – they are powerful tools which have the ability to heal painful psychological trauma inflicted by different circumstances, including racial and intergenerational trauma. Finding an accessible means to collectively heal communities of colour is an undeniable step in the right direction – and the widespread distribution of psychedelic assisted therapy has the ability to do just that. This means that it is essential for companies administering these treatments, marketing them to the public, and providing integration services to consider the makeup of their teams at a grassroots level to ensure that communities of colour feel safe, represented, and heard throughout the therapeutic process.
Ultimately, this also means that the attitudes and perceptions towards psychedelic treatments will need a ‘face-lift’ for not only those establishing the industry infrastructure, but for marginalized communities as well. Members in communities of colour are often reluctant to seek out treatment for mental health issues, despite disproportionately higher numbers of these individuals being affected by more serious mental health disorders (Nazroo et al., 2020). Stigma, shame, and fear are all powerful driving factors which keep minorities from exploring the tools available to assist with mental health care, as well as a widespread lack of accessibility to affordable treatment methods. New approaches to ending the stigma for mental health care which are culture-specific will need to be engaged to overcome racial disparities as treatment continues to expand.
How Race Can Impact Set and Setting
One example of how companies can positively contribute to progressive change includes creating welcoming treatment spaces which reflect a more diverse clientele. Psychedelic research has traditionally established that ‘set and setting’ are essential components to ensuring the most successful trip and treatment possible. Here, set refers to the internal state that an individual may be feeling before a psychedelic trip such as their mood, attitude, personality, motivations for using the treatment, and so on. For many communities of colour, the construct of racial identity plays a significant part in their perceptions of both set and setting (Neitzke-Spruill, 2020).
Psychedelics are not typically associated with diverse populations, and the stigma of being seen as ‘deviant’ in certain cultures while being painfully cognizant of the targeted repercussions that may result from their possession and use can be powerful influences on an individual’s feelings and attitudes. Racial consciousness is very real, and this may play a part in the comfortability of both the set of the participant and how they experience the setting of the treatment that they are in. This self-awareness or “double consciousness” is famously outlined by W.E.B Dubois in ‘The souls of Black folk’ in the following quote:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (Neitzke-Spruill, L., 2020)
Self-perception, whether as racially painful as Dubois has outlined here or just simply being aware of one’s alternative position can have a notable impact on those who struggle to accept the dominant discourse of who is socially, politically, and economically privileged in our society today. However, this isn’t to say that an ‘us vs. them’ divide needs to be created when developing these treatment programs. Ideally, instead of having homogenous POC groups construct spaces for their in-group members, a more robust and collaborative approach can be taken for a more balanced diversification of psychedelic healing spaces.
Self Healing for Communities of Colour
An alternative and somewhat more controversial option to traditional mental health care treatments can be outlined by the increasingly popular concept of “self-healing”, being touted by therapists with influencer-status who have gained immense traction on Instagram. Although this concept is not widely recognized as an adequate form of therapeutic practice by traditional mental health professionals, it’s important to understand how self-healing can be a viable option for communities of colour.
For example, one study reports that many African Americans prefer to be self-reliant in their pursuit of mental health care by using spiritual practices, such as attending the Black church and engaging in programs that are meant to enhance psychospiritual well-being (Holden et al., 2014). If this is the case, the use of psychedelics in the self-healing process for communities of colour, along with adequate integration resources such as psychotherapists trained in AOP (Anti Oppressive Practice) could provide real progress in making this revolutionary treatment easier to access (Larson, 2008). This is another reason why diversity and inclusion are so crucially important to consider when building a core team of integration specialists.
A Colourful Future Awaits
So, where does this all leave us now? It’s clear that in order for structural change to occur, we will need to prioritize the discrepancies in representation and inclusivity as the psychedelic field continues to expand. Thankfully, there are a number of initiatives that are making this the focus of their work, such as Chacruna Institute who is ensuring that marginalized populations will be included in all areas of psychedelic research, and The Sabina Project who believes that access to plant medicine is key in liberating traditionally oppressed peoples. As a more diverse infrastructure continues to chip its way into the dominant cultural framework, there are ways that we can all do our part to pave the way. Being intentional about the organizations that we choose to support, making sure their mission and commitment to diversity is authentic, focused, and in alignment with our own will make for a stronger future network with humanity’s healing in mind.
Written by Swati Sharma
Swati Sharma is a Social Sciences and Geography educator with a passion for psychology, travelling, veganism, and psychedelics. She has spent years backpacking and travelling across Southeast Asia and Central America in search of the finest street food, landscapes, and hiking expeditions. As a strong advocate for furthering the representation of marginalized individuals in the psychedelic field, she hopes to one day focus her work in making sure people of colour have access to safe, affordable, and inclusive psychedelic care within their communities.
Holden, K., McGregor, B., Thandi, P., Fresh, E., Sheats, K., Belton, A., … & Satcher, D. (2014). Toward culturally centered integrative care for addressing mental health disparities among ethnic minorities. Psychological services, 11(4), 357.
Larson, G. (2008). Anti-oppressive practice in mental health. Journal of Progressive Human Services, 19(1), 39-54.
Michaels, T. I., Purdon, J., Collins, A., & Williams, M. T. (2018). Inclusion of people of color in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: A review of the literature. BMC psychiatry, 18(1), 1-14
Nazroo, J. Y., Bhui, K. S., & Rhodes, J. (2020). Where next for understanding race/ethnic inequalities in severe mental illness? Structural, interpersonal and institutional racism. Sociology of health & illness, 42(2), 262-276.
Neitzke-Spruill, L. (2020). Race as a component of set and setting: How experiences of race can influence psychedelic experiences. Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 4(1), 51-60.