Psychedelic drugs can help treat PTSD caused by racism, discrimination: researchers

TORONTO — Racism, discrimination, physical and verbal abuse, microaggressions — Kanu Caplash says he has experienced them all. Bullied and tormented growing up in the United States because of his race, Caplash suffered from “racial trauma” — a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) characterized by symptoms like anxiety and depression.

“I’ve had my head smashed into windows. I got chased around hallways. I got stabbed twice,” said Caplash, a 21-year-old of South Asian descent who lives in Newtown, Conn.

“I get … called various names, you know — from the N word to terrorists to honestly anything you could think of. There wasn’t too many minorities in the area, so they would just kind of use any kind of racial slur they could think of, and just kind of direct that towards me.”

Several racialized groups do appear to have higher rates of PTSD that is likely attributed to racial trauma, says Dr. Monnica Williams, Canada Research Chair for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Ottawa and a clinical psychologist.

“This traumatization is a result of experiencing discrimination. And the problem is that we don’t have enough people of colour in the mental health workforce to meet the needs,” she said.

She had been studying PTSD for some time, particularly in people of colour. PTSD treatment can be very demanding, requiring patients to revisit their traumas in detail. It is scary for clients and difficult for therapists too, Williams said. When she learned about research being done with psychedelics and its impact when used with psychotherapy, she recognized how it could help people of colour.

“There were individuals who were using alcohol to cope and really having difficulty connecting with people and after the treatment, it was an amazing transformation to see people’s faces brighten and see them get their lives back,” said Williams.

Williams is the co-lead author of a recent retrospective study that found those who tried doses of psilocybin (more commonly known as magic mushrooms), LSD, or MDMA (the pure substance found in Ecstasy or Molly) reported a decrease in trauma symptoms, depression and anxiety after 30 days.

FROM HONOUR ROLL TO THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE

On paper, things appeared great for Caplash — an honour roll student, a gifted athlete, competitive swimmer and public speaker. But growing up as one of the few visible minorities in a predominantly white environment meant being hounded by bullies throughout his school years, according to Caplash. The constant barrage of abuse left him feeling anxious, hopeless, depressed, even suicidal.

“I just hid in this place weeping for hours, you know? Just contemplating that I want to end it all,” Caplash said.

He recalled avoiding sleep so he wouldn’t have nightmares — once going 84 hours without it. He reached some of his lowest points in seventh grade, he said, coming “very, very close” to attempting suicide.

“We don’t have any options or resources because the school system isn’t doing much to help,” Caplash said, adding that if anything, the system makes it worse.

‘They bring the bullies and they reprimand them and then all that does is teach them how to be sneakier, and more horrible and effective in their own way.”

He was always tense, constantly stressed. It made him irritable, angry, and depressed. He didn’t think he would survive past the age of 40.

“It gets impossible to kind of motivate myself to even get out of bed because it’s like, why? Why do I want to go and keep living when I’m just going to get more traumatized?” Caplash said.

“You kind of realize you don’t have any other choice but to just survive, and surviving is kind of just enough. I was anxious and I was scared, but after a while you kind of get used to it to an extent. Just focus on surviving.”

Then, in college, a friend told Caplash about a study using MDMA to treat PTSD. He had reservations going into the study, but decide to participate to help himself and help scientists get answers for racialized patients.

A LIFE FOUND IN PIANO KEYS

In his first session with a psychoactive drug, Caplash recalled a vision in which he was standing on translucent piano keys in the middle of a universe. As he ran across each one, he could see a different part of his life within each key.

“When you can visually see yourself living past 40 … when I can see yourself happy, it just destroys all emotion of you thinking you’re not going to live past 40,” he said.

He also dove into the piano keys that held his traumas and experienced what felt like living out the trauma for a thousand years, he described.

“It becomes a lot easier to process it because you’re processing it over and over and over and over again and that’s effectively what therapy is … processing your traumas to the point where … they don’t affect you in your daily life, where they become manageable.” Caplash said.

He says half of his PTSD issues were dealt with after the first round. After three sessions, it felt like 90 per cent.

“It was crazy … to the point where, who I was going into the study was very much not who I was coming out,” he said.

“It’s been every day, you know, for the last couple years being suicidal. Constantly wondering, ‘is this the day I’m going to do it?’ And after just that first session … I just wasn’t suicidal anymore.”

Despite the stigma, common fears and assumptions about psychedelics, researchers say the drugs are generally not addictive, but they caution people not to try them on their own. They are illegal in Canada and must be done in combination with therapy in a clinical setting under medical supervision.

“These are promising treatments, they need to be studied more, but it’s really going to be a huge missed opportunity if these treatments are not made ….accessible broadly,” said Dr. Jordan Sloshower, a professor with the department of psychiatry at Yale University who is collaborating with Williams on new research.

Williams meanwhile, believes psychedelics will be a “game changer” in mental health care and is planning several more studies on the subject, including using Psilocybin and MDMA to treat trauma in racialized people and refugees.

“I think it is going to change the way that we approach and think about people who have problems like trauma and depression and anxiety,” she said.

Caplash is now a mental health advocate and wants others who have gone through similar trauma to know they should never give up, and to treat their mental health seriously.

“I don’t even know if I’d necessarily be alive today if it wasn’t … for this therapy,” he said.

“When you go from constantly contemplating suicide every second of every day to feeling like I actually have something to live for … that’s such a massive change.”

Resources are available in communities across Canada for anyone struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns.

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