Don’t Call Me Resilient

The potential of psychedelics to heal our racial traumas

Episode Summary

Clinical psychologist and professor Monnica Williams is on a mission to bring psychedelics to therapists' offices to help people heal from their racial traumas. To do this, she's jumping over some big hurdles.

Episode Notes

When a lot of us think about psychedelics, we think about magic mushrooms - and hallucinatory drug trips.  But the concept of psychedelics as a tool in therapy is  making its way into the mainstream. Online stores have popped up selling psilocybin capsules promising to boost focus. And on a more official front, the Canadian Senate recently recommended  fast-tracking research into how psychedelics can help veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  But research also suggests psychedelics - including psilocybin ("magic mushrooms") and MDMA - can help heal racial trauma. In today's episode, Vinita speaks to clinical psychologist and University of Ottawa psychology professor Monnica Williams, about how psychedelic-assisted therapy can help with those dealing with this type of trauma, which usually encompasses ongoing experiences of what Williams calls "insults to your person." But it doesn't end there: With racial trauma, Williams says, therapists are also looking at events beyond an individual's lifetime such as "historical trauma, that may have happened decades or even centuries ago, that is still associated with the person's cultural group."  And while psychedelics show incredible promise in treating this type of trauma, many challenges remain. Part of it has to do with legalization and the lack of clinical trials. Another part has to do with the terrible track record institutions have when it comes to communities of colour and drugs. There is a long and ugly history of using Black and racialized bodies without consent for medical experimentation, including drug testing. And we can't ignore the racial roots of the war on drugs and the devastating impact it had - and continues to have - on Black and racialized communities.  Williams tackles these hurdles in her work.  And in this episode, she shares her thoughts about how we can open up the healing properties of psychedelics to racialized people  in need in a way that works with them, rather than against them.

Episode Transcription



Vinita Srivastava: [00:00:00] Hey everyone, a couple of things before we get started today. First, our listener survey. We try to make Don't Call Me Resilient with you, our listeners, always in mind. And we'd love your help doing this. We've put together a survey to find out a bit more about you, what you like about this podcast and what you want to hear more of.

It only takes 10 minutes to fill it out. You can find the survey at DontCallMeResilient. com. Oh, and one more thing, if you haven't checked it out already, we think you might really like the podcast Democracy ish. It breaks down the chaotic politics in the US from a Black and brown perspective. Hosts Danielle and Wajahat are pretty unfiltered in their commentary, and there's nothing wrong with their lofty goal to envision a true multiracial democracy.

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Vinita Srivastava: From the [00:01:00] Conversation, this is Don't Call Me Resilient, I'm Vinita Srivastava.


Monnica Williams: Our society suffers from a mental illness called racism. We as a society need to heal. We need to heal from this disease where you have one part of the body attacking another part of the body. It's like an autoimmune disorder, right? Doesn't make any sense. Makes the whole body sick. And we're on a planet that we all share.

We're all human beings. We're all connected, even in ways we don't realize or understand. We could think of it as a single organism. And we all need to heal so that we can all function in a way that's in the best interest of the whole entity. 

Vinita Srivastava: Lately, I've been seeing the signs of a psychedelic renaissance everywhere I look.

On my walks here in Toronto, I see these Alice in Wonderland like images of mushrooms drawn onto storefronts advertising [00:02:00] psychedelic drugs for sale. We're also hearing a lot more about the therapeutic use of psychedelics. A Canadian TV show I saw recently features a Syrian Canadian doctor who's experiencing trauma, and the psychiatrist he's working with suggests psilocybin therapy.

But it's not just on TV. The Canadian Senate last week recommended the federal government fast track a research program into how psychedelics can help veterans suffering from PTSD. They said Canada is falling behind other countries. and this type of therapy. According to a growing body of research, the use of psychedelics can open up potentially transformative healing for people who are dealing with depression and trauma, including post traumatic stress disorder and even racial trauma.

But we don't exactly have a great track record when it comes to communities of color and drugs. There is a long and ugly history of using [00:03:00] racialized bodies, Black bodies, Indigenous bodies without consent for medical experimentation, including drug testing. We must also remember the racial roots of the war on drugs and the devastating impact that it had and continues to have on racialized communities.

As psychedelics are going mainstream, how can we open up their healing properties to people in need in an inclusive way? A way that works with racialized people and communities, rather than against them. Here today to answer this question is clinical psychologist Monica Williams. Monica is also a full professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, where she is the Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Disparities.

She is also the clinical director of the Behavioral Wellness Clinic in Connecticut. Her most recent research involves psychedelic assisted therapy for PTSD.[00:04:00]

Monica, thank you so much for being here today. 


Monnica Williams: Oh, it's my pleasure. I'm happy to join the conversation. 

Vinita Srivastava: So psychedelics. I just wanted to start the conversation with you because how you got into this is deeply personal. So you said you got into this field to think about healing and to think about how you can help heal.

And it sounds like, you know, you're also talking about how to heal racial trauma. Can you help us locate what that is, what it looks like or what it feels like? 

Monnica Williams: The easiest way to explain racial trauma is if you just think about a post traumatic stress disorder. And if someone was to get post traumatic stress disorder from experiences of racism, we would call that racial trauma.

Now, racial trauma, it's actually a broader concept because of a few things. For one, we know that... Traumas are not necessarily one and done. It's usually [00:05:00] ongoing experiences of stress that eventually traumatize a person. And so you can have lots of little daily insults to your person. You can have a few major things that happen every now and then.

And eventually the weight of these stresses and traumas causes the person to become traumatized. And that's not even unique to racial trauma. But as we understand more about how trauma and traumatization work, we find that people who have PTSD, they didn't have one trauma. They had many traumas. And so racial trauma is the same in that sense.

Now, in addition with racial trauma, We may be looking at things that have happened to an individual over their lifetime, but we're also looking at at additional things. We're looking at historical trauma, so the trauma that may have happened decades or even centuries ago that is still associated with the person's cultural group, and we may also be looking at community [00:06:00] traumas.

So things that happen in that person's community because their whole communities are racialized. And so there may be also very specific cultural traumas that have happened. So these could be catastrophes that happened to a whole group of people like ethnic cleansing or genocide, the Holocaust, or it could be a natural disaster.

So these are also pieces of that history. 

Vinita Srivastava: So it's like what people would call intergenerational trauma. Just to understand what intergenerational trauma is, you're saying something that happened to one's grandmother, but not just one's grandmother, perhaps something that happened within your community, or within the community that you identify with.

This can result in trauma today. 

Monnica Williams: Absolutely. You know, my parents, They grew up in the Jim Crow era in the deep South in the United States. And so as African Americans, they were subject to segregation. [00:07:00] You know, my father would even tell me stories sometime when he was a child, he and his brothers would have to get up early in the morning to go down to the baseball diamond, because as soon as the white kids got up, the black kids had to leave.

And so now it's just the way of life. And if you tried to talk back or assert yourself, well, you could be harmed, you could be beaten, you could be killed, your family's home could be set on fire. So this is the type of oppression that people lived under back then. And so that's, that affected the whole African American community.


Vinita Srivastava: Can you tell us how have you seen racial trauma impacting mental health?

Monnica Williams: Absolutely. So people with racial trauma. They often have symptoms such as depression and because people feel helpless in the face of this ongoing racism. And when you feel helpless, that leads to feelings of depression. People may feel anxious because they don't know when the next [00:08:00] racist thing's going to happen to them.

So they go around. on guard for danger. Sometimes people, they have thoughts and memories that they can't get out of their head and these continue to plague them and they try to push them out and they don't stay away or they pop up as nightmares or they see things that remind them of trauma. So they try to avoid them.

And then people may, may be despondent. They may become angry. They may have all kinds of negative emotions. They may have low self esteem and guilt and even blame themselves for their own experiences of racism, which are, of course, not their fault. 

Vinita Srivastava: That sounds like it's a common experience for a lot of people when you say they internalize it.

It's probably very challenging to pinpoint it as you say, like, these are things that are like almost like in the water. It's like, how do you identify what happens, what happened to you? What I've read about you is that you were at first really skeptical about the use of psychedelics to heal racial trauma.

So why is that? 

Monnica Williams: For one, I was skeptical because I had [00:09:00] never even heard of the idea that you would use psychedelics as any sort of medicine. Yeah. I grew up in the Nazi Reagan. Just say no era. So these were all part of that category of just bad things that you don't ever want to touch because you could get in a big trouble, you get addicted, you could be harmed, you go to jail.

Like I was a good kid growing up and I was like, I'm not touching any of that stuff because that's dangerous. And then also as a black person, knowing that this is one way that people of color are. Pipelined into prison, right? Yes. Yes. 

Vinita Srivastava: Through that war on drugs, I guess

Monnica Williams: The war on drugs, exactly.

Yeah. I mean, all communities have substance use issues, but only certain communities are paying the price for that. No, I never had any thoughts that, that these could be medicines. It just Wasn't on my radar. So 

Vinita Srivastava: then what changed your mind about the [00:10:00] use of psychedelics? 

Monnica Williams: Well, really it was the research Seeing the research studies coming out that were sponsored by maps a multidisciplinary Association for psychedelic studies their research studies with MDMA and seeing the results now I had studied Trauma I had studied how to treat trauma I learned how to treat PTSD under one of the world's foremost experts on PTSD, Edna Foa.

And we had treatments that were effective if people would do them. They're very difficult, very challenging, and so... Seeing psychedelics as a way to get to the same end point, but maybe faster with a lot less distress that really appealed to me. I don't mind if I have to administer a hard treatment to someone if I know that it's going to work.

But if I can do something that's more humane and get the same results, that's what [00:11:00] I want to do. Because ultimately my, my quest, my reason to be here is I want to reduce human suffering. And I know that some suffering... It's necessary, it's a part of life, but there's some suffering that's not necessary, and I'm very much against unnecessary suffering.

Vinita Srivastava: Okay, I'm going to ask you the question because I just feel like I can hear the things popping up in my head, which is maybe it's my mother, maybe it's my sister, I don't know, maybe it's somebody that I know that's saying, yeah, but still I don't believe that. The studies that you read, they're peer reviewed studies.

They told you that there's very little health damages to people or like, I guess that it convinced you that not only is it a good therapy, but also it doesn't cause harm. I mean, that's what I'm wondering. I think that's the first question. Like, how do we know this is not, sorry to say, but I'm just going to say that a lot.

How do we know this is not quackery? 

Monnica Williams: Yeah, no, good question. And so really the research studies are what showed me that. the psychedelics can work, but it wasn't until actually [00:12:00] seeing people being treated with psychedelics, in this case, MDMA, their process, which was part of the training. I really started to understand and appreciate the potential because I know that when I do.

Therapy with someone for PTSD, they have to revisit their traumas in great detail. Sometimes we say they're reliving their traumas. Yeah, right. They're not really reliving their traumas because they're not in danger in my office, but they feel like they are. And that's just as bad. Okay. So. If the person can instead take this medicine, lay on a comfortable bed or couch and put blindfolds on and listen to music while the medicine does its thing and the brain starts to heal itself, I'm going to go for that option.

Vinita Srivastava: You mentioned MDMA, but what other kinds of drugs are we talking about? 

Monnica Williams: So, other psychedelic substances include, in addition to MDMA, which is also called ecstasy, include [00:13:00] psilocybin, which is, comes from magic mushrooms, and LSD is sort of the classic one everyone's heard of. There isn't as much research happening with LSD.

Ketamine is also being used for psychedelic assisted therapy. That's what we use at my clinic in Connecticut. because it's legal. It's the only one that that's legal right now. And as well as other substances like ayahuasca, which is a brew made of tree roots and bark that contains DMT. And so that's another substance that's being studied and used as well.

And so what happens is these create what we call non ordinary states of consciousness. People sometimes say altered states of consciousness. I prefer non ordinary states. Altered kind of implies, eh, maybe not so good. Or expanded consciousness, but allows people maybe to perceive things that they don't normally perceive, allows parts of the brain to talk to each other that don't normally talk to each other, and gives people more [00:14:00] perspective and insight.

And ultimately when you're doing therapy, that's what you want. You want your patient to have insight into their situation, in this case their trauma, because that helps to heal. A lot of the shame and the blame and the guilt when they understand that this didn't happen to them because they were a bad person.

This happened for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with them. So that's what helps give people perspective and start the healing process. 

Vinita Srivastava: It sounds wonderful, I have to say. It sounds really fantastic, so I'm also wondering about the hurdles. I guess I'm wondering about two things. One is safety, but let's talk about the hurdles first.

What are you seeing as the hurdles for us to get to this point? You said that there's only one of those that you mentioned that's legal. That's I'm sure that's one of the issues, but what are some of the other hurdles that you come  up against?

Monnica Williams: Yeah, there are a number of hurdles. For one, yes, the fact that the substances are illegal makes it really hard to do the research.

I mean, they're [00:15:00] not even available for treatment for people. If someone comes to my clinic and says I would like treatment for my depression with psilocybin, I can't do that because that would be against the law and my license could be in jeopardy. And even places where it's decriminalized, you can get the substance, you can use it yourself.

You know, a licensed clinician isn't going to want to offer that to you because that puts it at too much risk. Mm hmm. So those are big hurdles. 

Vinita Srivastava: So you talked about the idea that it's not legal yet, so you need, but how to get to that place of getting legal, I'm wondering. 

Monnica Williams: So we have to get it legal, and I think it's going to be legal in the next few years.

I think MDMA has got some great research backing it up, psilocybin has got a lot of great research backing it up, and I think we're going to see those become legal for psychedelic assisted therapy soon. But the... The additional issues are making sure that we have a mental health workforce that is ready, [00:16:00] that's prepared to offer these medicines in a safe way, and also, also working with people in communities of color, because so many of our mental health professionals, they don't even have basic Training or knowledge and working with people across race, ethnicity and culture.

And then you're going to add a psychedelic to that. And there's a lot of ways that can go sideways. 

Vinita Srivastava: Just based on the short time that I've known you, I see that you're very much a woman of action. So I'm wondering how you are dealing with this, these, some of these hurdles yourself at the university level and your own clinics.

Monnica Williams: One of the first things that I did was I applied for some grant funding in order to facilitate a training for therapists of color who were interested in learning how to use MDMA for PTSD. So the impetus behind that was that we're going to get more people of color who are going to feel more comfortable coming [00:17:00] in when they have clinicians who are from their communities.

And then also now we're training clinicians who can go back to their communities and bring this medicine with them once it becomes legal. There'll already be people there in those communities to offer that treatment. And so we did the biggest cohort of trainees at one time ever to that point, which was 50 therapists of color who went through that training process.

Oh, wow. Yeah. That's amazing. Yeah. And I have to also acknowledge the open source foundations and maps, which also. Matched their grant funds with other donations such as the River Styx foundation and so forth. So that was a huge milestone Although I will say not without its own Difficulties, which I won't go into now because that's like a whole nother podcast

But we did it 

Vinita Srivastava: so let me just stop for a second and pull back a little bit at the beginning I [00:18:00] talked about those storefronts The idea of these, I don't know, magic mushrooms going on these psychedelic trips with their friends and something that's more recreational. But you're using the term medicine. Is there a relationship between what we're seeing on the streets, all of these storefronts opening, the mushroom storefronts, and what we're talking about here?

Are these two different worlds completely? 

Monnica Williams: I would say they're, for the most part, two completely different things. Okay. Because people going out on the street, going into a storefront to get mushrooms, you know, they're generally using them recreationally. Maybe it's not even recreational, maybe they are trying to find healing, but it's not in this.

It's a medicalized context where we have trained clinicians who are working to help somebody with a diagnosed mental health issue. 

Vinita Srivastava: Hmm. So it actually is something that you really want to think about doing with a trained practitioner.

Monnica Williams: That's my recommendation. And it also [00:19:00] depends on the person and what their condition is and how much experience they have with psychedelics.

If it's somebody that has used psychedelics for a long time safely, and they understand them very well, that's very different from someone who's never tried them before. Yeah, right. And I would never want somebody who's never tried them before. Especially if they also have a mental health condition to do that on their own.

Yes. Because even though the treatment, I think in a lot of ways is better than what we offer as therapists without the substance is still very challenging. There's still upsetting pieces to it. There's still places where people may be scared or confused or they think they're going to die. And it's really nice to have somebody there to be like, no.

You're not gonna die. You're okay. I'm here with you. You're still breathing. You'll get through this. That can make a world of difference. When you're sitting there freaking out, you may not be able to process or make use of insights that come to you. 

Vinita Srivastava: You've actually [00:20:00] gone through these clinical trials with people.

So you've seen folks react. You have some experience with how people are reacting through their therapy. 

Monnica Williams: Yes, absolutely. And it's a mixed bag because first of all, the way people respond to psychedelics, it's not predictable. And even the same person can take the same psychedelic under the same circumstances and have a completely different experience.

And sometimes they're blissful and transformative and sometimes they're really scary and upsetting. Got to be ready for whatever comes. 

Vinita Srivastava: Yeah, that sounds scary. Well, that sounds a bit like life too, I guess. I've also heard you say that you talk about collective healing, like this idea of psychedelics playing a role in the collective healing of racial trauma.

And also promoting racial justice. So I'm wondering what you mean by that collective healing and how do we get there? Cause it sounds wonderful. 

Monnica Williams: Yeah. [00:21:00] Well, you know, when people are traumatized, usually it's of an interpersonal nature and that cuts people off from each other and people isolate. Right. But also we find that people heal through connecting with other people.

That's how we get through traumas. Our society suffers from a mental illness called racism, and we as a society need to heal. We need to heal from this disease where you have one part of the body attacking another part of the body. It's like an autoimmune disorder, right? Doesn't make any sense. Makes the whole body sick.

And we're on a planet that we all share. We're all human beings. We're all connected, even in ways we don't realize or understand. We could think of it as a single organism and we all need to heal so that we can all function in a way that's in the best interest of the whole entity. [00:22:00]

Vinita Srivastava: So that's the collective that you're talking about.

Monnica Williams: That's a collective. Yeah. Everybody, it's all of us. 

Vinita Srivastava: How do you see this medicine in the service of promoting racial justice? 

Monnica Williams: I see psychedelics as being helpful potentially in a lot of different ways. On an individual level, as a clinician, I work with people individually and I can look at their suffering and their symptoms and I can think, here's how this medicine can help that person.

Hmm. Also, many times these medicines are taken in, in groups. And so last year, for example, I organized three trips to Ecuador for different types of groups of people who needed healing or refreshing or transformation. One of the groups was just for black women. 

Vinita Srivastava: I was wondering also something about the accessibility issue that you were talking about, you know, how expensive it [00:23:00] is, and I'm wondering what kind of arguments do you think need to be made to put forward to like a funding body, like a government body to, to fund something like this for, I think you're talking about traumatized or racially traumatized communities, right?

Because it sounds very expensive. 

Monnica Williams: Even though it is expensive on the front end, if you look at the cost of living with a mental illness and you do the math, this is much cheaper, much cheaper for everyone. If you take a couple of months, have really a few psychedelic sessions interspersed with some therapy, what we call integration sessions, where you make sense of what's come up for you with therapist, despite.

Uh, these costs, it's much cheaper to help someone and heal them, have them better, have them back in society, gainfully employed, paying tax, than [00:24:00] it is for them to have to live on disability or welfare. It's much more cost effective at the end of the day to get people back on their feet even though it's also humane and it's the right thing to do and we should be doing it anyway even if it's more expensive.

But the bottom line is this is a capitalist society. If I could point out the economic benefits that might make it go a little faster. 

Vinita Srivastava: On a personal level, my fear would be addiction. Mm hmm. Will I get addicted? Will I get sick? I've got kids, so I've got to be around for them. 

Monnica Williams: That's another place where I think education can really help because most psychedelics are not addictive.

We assume they are because they're illegal, just like things that are addictive, like heroin. But they're not addictive. Which isn't to say that there's gonna always be some random person that says, Yeah, I got addicted to magic mushrooms. Okay, you got addicted. But for the most part, for most people, no. And for treatment, you only take it a few times.

So, you don't even have a chance to get addicted. 

Vinita Srivastava: Yeah. [00:25:00] That's amazing. And plus, I guess you're doing this micro dosing thing. 

Monnica Williams: I'm actually not a big fan of the idea of micro dosing. Okay, tell me. Because for one, first of all, there's no research behind it that shows that it's effective at all. So I'm a scientist and I do things based on the data and there's no data that says it's it that it's anything more than a placebo.

I could believe that there may be something to it, but we just don't, we don't know. Number one. Number two, my concern about microdosing is that rather than taking the substance a few times, having a big psychedelic experience, getting insight, using that to make changes, you're taking a little bit every day.

And this to me is almost like falling back on the medical model that we've been enslaved with for decades. where you just go take a pill every day, right? Like you take your Prozac every day. That's not healing. That's not a cure. That's managing symptoms. And to [00:26:00] me, that's backwards. That's where we've been.

That's not where we want to go. I want to see people go forward where they're actually healed, where they're cured, where they're not struggling with those symptoms and have to be dependent on taking their medicine every day. Because this is what big pharma has been thriving on for a long time. And I worry that the notion of microdosing.

It's just dragging us back into that kind of, I don't know, slavery to the substances. 

Vinita Srivastava: Thank you for explaining that now I understand it's very different It's actually like you need to take this in an environment with a therapist because you actually are going to trip

I'm really in awe of your work. Thank you so much for taking all the time with me today It was a real pleasure to speak with you 

Monnica Williams: Oh, you're very welcome. It was a pleasure to be here. And thank you for your important work on this topic. Thank you.[00:27:00]

Vinita Srivastava: Thank you for listening to this episode of Don't Call Me Resilient. I shared the research and case studies that Monica mentioned in our show notes on our website, theconversation. com. And I have a small favor to ask. We have a new listener survey to get more information about you, what you like, and what you might want more of on.

Don't call me resilient. Please take a moment to fill it out. It only takes 10 minutes and it will really help us shape the podcast moving forward with you. Our listeners in mind, just go to Don't call me Don't call me. Resilient is a production of the Conversation Canada. It was made possible by a grant for journalism innovation.

from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava. Our associate producer is Adhika Kakhi. Our consulting producer is Jennifer Moroz. Rema Tulesheik does our sound [00:28:00] design and mixing. Kikachi Meme is our studio. Student producer, and Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada.

And by the way, what an amazing team it is. And if you're wondering who wrote and produced the music we use on the podcast, that's Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water.