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Mental Health

Psychedelic Research Needs to Take Race, Ethnicity into Consideration

— November 29, 2022

MDMA and psilocybin studies have predominately been focused on the benefits for white participants.

The use of psychedelics for the treatment of a wide range of mental health conditions is a concept that has been growing in popularity as of late. However, enthusiasm over the new treatment modality could be masking complications based on race and ethnicity. Most of the research surrounding the use of microdosing to treat psychological conditions excludes minorities.

“Both clinical trials and research exploring the naturalistic use of psychedelic compounds concentrates primarily on the experiences of white participants, a phenomenon that has been called psychedelic whitewashing,” data shows.

In fact, in one 2018 review of 17 landmark studies from 2000 to 2017, a team found that “only 4.1% of all participants were of Black or Hispanic descent, in contrast to 82.3% of participants who were white.” This means that the results of the study may not have been representative of the results possible within minority populations. 

Psychedelic Research Needs to Take Race, Ethnicity into Consideration
Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

A study released last month demonstrates the importance of accounting for race and ethnicity in psychedelic studies. According to the study, race and ethnicity “considerably moderated the associations between MDMA and psilocybin use and psychological distress and suicidality.” The study analyzed data from a population-based survey that included “484,732 respondents to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health–a yearly survey that collects data on mental health outcomes and naturalistic substance use patterns (substance use in natural settings) in the United States.”

“This study is unique because it capitalizes on a naturalistic sample of hundreds of thousands of people, which provides really robust external validity,” said Grant Jones, one of the lead researchers of the study and a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at Harvard University.  “In the backdrop of psychedelic research in general in which race and ethnicity haven’t really been studied as a potential moderating factor, the study is one that demonstrates that race might indeed be impacting the associations that psychedelics share with health.”

In Jones’ study, for white survey participants, lifetime MDMA use corresponded to a a reduction in psychological distress, suicidal ideation, or suicidal intent. Psilocybin use among whites also lowered psychological distress and suicidal ideation. 

Considering the minority groups, for Hispanics, MDMA was associated with less suicidal ideation, while psilocybin lowered the odds of psychological distress. For Asian participants, only psilocybin use lessened psychological distress. For Black, indigenous, and multiracial participants, MDMA and psilocybin use were not associated with lowering negative outcomes. 

“We conducted these exploratory analyses as they could reveal additional protective associations between psychedelic use and mental health outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities,” the authors state. Their findings yielded different results for different ethnic backgrounds.

Jones said,  “I just hope that this research can start a conversation about what the different needs are for different populations as they relate to psychedelics, and how those differing needs may need to inform how we think about developing psychedelic treatments in the future. This has important treatment implications down the line, as we might need to be adapting our therapies to be more culturally informed.”

He continued,  “There are very few psychedelic researchers of color in the space currently, so providing them with more opportunity to conduct research on their communities would be a great way to foster a wider range of set and settings that hold a broader range of populations.” 


How Does Race and Ethnicity Influence Psychedelic Mental Health Outcomes? 

Inclusion of people of color in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: a review of the literature

Race and ethnicity moderate the associations between lifetime psychedelic use (MDMA and psilocybin) and psychological distress and suicidality

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