Scientists Are Using Psychedelics to Help People Cope With Racial Trauma

‘The nice thing about ketamine is it gives you this really nice third-person perspective’

Emma Betuel
Future Human
Published in
7 min readMar 22, 2021

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In the lower left corner of this photo is a small rectangle with closeup of a depressed-looking Black person against a yellow background. A larger, zoomed-out, slightly blurry version of the same image, but colored red, is to the left of the small rectangle, which overlaps it slightly. The background is an even more zoomed-out and blurry version of the pic, colored orange.
Photo illustration: Save As for Medium; source: Getty Images

At Connecticut’s Behavioral Wellness Clinic, therapist Mailae Halstead keeps a careful eye on her patients as they’re “pulled through time.” She’s there as they watch themselves survive a traumatic moment from a bird’s-eye view, or feel reimmersed in a joyful experience. She’ll ask few questions because there’s another force at work in their brains.

At the beginning of the session, her patients placed a ketamine-laced lozenge in their mouth for a very specific reason: to explore the psychological trauma left by systemic racism.

The ketamine dosing session is the culmination of weeks of preparation. Halstead has learned her patient’s personalities and histories with racism. She’s tweaked the office decor to make a patient feel more at home. She’s set a playlist running in the background. During the dosing session, she and another therapist are there to take notes and address any immediate needs, but they’ll get down to the bulk of the therapy once the drugs wear off. When the drug hits, they let the trip unfold.

Halstead has completed three ketamine-assisted therapy sessions since she began her research on psychedelic-assisted therapy in 2019. This year, she plans to guide two more patients through the process.

“People are able to go, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe that I endured this,’” Halstead tells Future Human. “‘I have so much empathy and compassion for my lived experience.’”

The ketamine-assisted therapy sessions are the brainchild of Monnica Williams, PhD, a clinical psychologist who runs the Behavioral Wellness Clinic and the Culture and Mental Health Disparities Lab at the University of Ottawa. She’s one of just a handful of scientists who have made a connection that’s obvious to people of color, but has been slow to take hold among psychologists: Racism…

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Emma Betuel
Future Human

Freelance science journalist covering the future of science and society.