ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MONNICA WILLIAMS SPEAKS ABOUT THE FUTURE OF PSYCHEDELICS IN PSYCHIATRY
Content warning: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and race-based discrimination
On March 2, associate professor Monnica Williams, who is also the Canada research chair for mental health disparities at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology, led an online seminar entitled, “Psychedelics, Therapies, Research, and Training.”
During the seminar, Williams explained how ketamine, a dissociative drug that can distort one’s environment and thoughts, can help patients overcome anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In her study, Williams wrote that ketamine can reduce depressive symptoms in patients and these benefits can last for nearly two weeks.
Also in this study, Williams explains why ketamine alleviates symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ketamine, “produces [an altered] state of consciousness, promotes relief from negativity, [and produces] an openness to new perspectives.”
During her presentation, Williams analyzed a case study that showed how ketamine helped an African-American woman, Robyn (a pseudonym), overcome the PTSD she developed in response to race-based discrimination at work.
“Robyn’s symptoms included hypervigilance, intense recollections, and anxiety … she also expressed hopelessness around her mental health challenges,” said Williams.
According to an American study, people who endure race-based discrimination at work experience higher levels of stress and adverse health problems compared to people who do not.
Additionally, a recent Statistics Canada survey found “three in 10 participants experienced [racist incidents] in the workplace or when applying for a job.”
As race-based discrimination is both prevalent and harmful, Williams believes it is necessary to include people of colour in psychedelic drug studies so they can hopefully overcome this sort of trauma.
“There’s a common misconception that you pop this pill and then you see rainbows and then you’re better,” said Williams. However, she explained, this is an intensive treatment process.
Robyn’s treatment lasted 13 days. Along with the administration of ketamine, Williams’ team employed functional analytic psychotherapy and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to help Robyn through her trauma.
“Robyn set an intention to break the distressing and ruminative cycles in her head about her traumas,” said Williams, who believes psychedelics are most effective for patients set intentions for their treatment.
“When she received the ketamine, she reported feeling profound feelings of relaxation and I encouraged her to stay in the [mental space] where she was relaxed.”
Williams thought enjoyment was important for Robyn to experience, “because so much of her life had revolved around doing work and feeling stressed.” So, for a few moments, ketamine allowed Robyn to experience peace.
Through this treatment plan, Robyn was able to “reconceptualize her trauma. She was able to move through difficult memories and emotions rather than letting them consume her,” said Williams.
The future of psychedelics in psychiatry
Williams said her study picks up where psychedelic researchers left off in the 1960s.
Around 70 years ago, more than 1,000 clinical papers emerged that described experiences with psychedelics.
However, from the 1960s until now, psychedelics were often left out of psychological and psychiatric studies in North America because these drugs were “associated [with] political and cultural upheavals” — commonly known as the hippie movement.
U of O sociology professor Ariel Fuenzalida said, “there is still stigma around these illicit substances.” However, he believes, “we are in the beginning stages of a cultural shift in our understanding of these substances.”
While studies from the mid 1900s hold important information about the healing power of psychedelics, Fuenzalida believes researchers should also study how psychedelics are used as healing agents in the Amazon.
The history of psychedelics in Amazonia is completely different from the history of psychedelics in North America.
The psychedelic of choice in the Amazon is ayahuasca, “a psychoactive plant mixture used in ceremonial contexts.”
Fuenzalida believes ayahuasca traditions might provide researchers with insight into how psychedelics are useful in therapeutic contexts because Amazonian’s have used psychedelics to gain spiritual insights and healthy mental states since the early 1900s.
“For Amazonians, psychedelic substances are used to unleash deep and powerful experiences,” said Fuenzalida.
Ayahuasca is typically consumed in a highly ritualized setting. For example, after a drug-induced mind-altering experience, Amazonians attempt to make sense of their experiences through deep contemplation.
Fuenzalida learned that Amazonians who experience psychedelic “visions, require a therapeutic session so that they can propel their healing process forward.”
He therefore argues that psychedelics are therapeutic aids and they cannot dispel trauma on their own. The individual who consumes the psychedelic must make a conscious effort to work through their trauma.