A Message on Black History Month by Kwasi Adusei, DNP, Journey Clinical Senior Prescriber
As we come to the end of Black History Month, we reflect on this period of honoring the contributions and achievements of Black people throughout history. This month serves as a platform to elevate accomplishments that warrant recognition while also remembering the trauma and systemic injustices of the past and the present, which are deeply embedded in American society and beyond. These injustices have had lasting effects on the collective mental health and well-being of the Black community.
In our reflections, we often look to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who remind us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.,” and whose hopeful optimism in dreaming for a better future changed the world as we know it today. Malcolm X, someone with an unrivaled vigor for justice in the face of traumatic loss within his family and community, told us, “we need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.” It’s through this unity that we can forge ahead for a culture of reconnection we all so desperately need.
Our world, fraught with trauma carried across generations, yearns for a collective breath to release the tension of injustice living in our bodies, which manifests in the form of PTSD, depression, anxiety and race-based trauma. For many, psychedelics seem one of the necessary tools to help chisel away the pain and slowly begin to mend wounds that were too fresh to be healed by previous generations. Among those making key strides in supporting society’s collective healing are key Black leaders who are highly deserving of recognition.
In 2018, Monnica Williams, PhD., one of the many leading the way, launched the first MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study intended for people of color at the University of Connecticut, with the help of a team that included Black therapists Sara Reed, MS. and Jamilla George, M.Div. Although this study was closed due to the bureaucratic burden that often comes with pivotal and pioneering work, it paved the way for the first MDMA-assisted psychotherapy training through MAPS for therapists of color.
Many of the 50 participants who underwent this training have become emerging leaders for equity in psychedelic medicine and paved the way for important firsts. Among these leaders are Joseph McCowan, who along with Picolya McCall, Psy.D., made history by becoming the first Black co-therapy pair to conduct an experimental session within a clinical trial of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
Perpetually inspired by what’s come before, recent years have seen an emergence of training programs that can support the Black community. MAPS has been steadfast in their commitment to diversifying the field, as outlined in the $5 million Health Equity Plan, which commits to support accessibility through providing training and research opportunities for people of color. We’ve also seen the birth of programs like the Liberation Training, led by Charlotte James of and Sara Reed, which create a revolutionary bridge of therapists and community healers who together, are providing a framework of liberatory healing that honors the many ways people find access to healing.
It’s apparent this is all just the beginning. Lately, Black Therapists Rock, led by Deran Young, has helped introduce psychedelic medicine to a network of thousands of Black therapists around the country, many of whom are now being trained in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.
This changing landscape brings major promise for a societal paradigm shift, but as with anything that has the potential to be so transformative, there is risk involved. With necessary timing, leaders have come forth to support the emergence of psychedelic medicine through the recognition that inherent risk exists.
Hanifa Nayo Washington is one of those leaders. Washington serves as organizing principle of One Village Healing, an online, BIPOC-centered healing, resilience, and psychedelic wellness space. She has emerged as a thought leader in psychedelic activism and is Co-founder and Chief Ambassador at Fireside Project, a nonprofit that is creating systemic change in the field of psychedelics. Through their Psychedelic Peer Support Line, Fireside Project has created a nationwide safety net for thousands of callers that has substantially decreased 911 calls and hospitalizations while democratizing access to free high-quality care. As a powerful voice in this field, Washington’s insight into psychedelic medicine was featured in Essence Magazine, a publication for Black women with an impressive circulation of 1.6 million.
These essential figures, amongst many others, deserve recognition for their work. And many will, thanks to the upcoming documentary A Table of Our Own by Ayize Jama-Everett and Kufikiri Imara, which features the stories of dozens of Black artists, scientists, academics, therapists, entrepreneurs, educators, cultivators, and spiritual leaders with experience with plant medicine. The documentary will highlight leaders such as Courtney Watson, founder of Doorway Therapeutic Services, a successful Black-owned ketamine clinic in Oakland, California, who is challenging the narrative that Black folks don’t do psychedelic therapy. It turns out they do when they have the safe spaces to do so.
As therapists and clinicians in the field, we are trained to consider our cultural contexts and inquire about how best to be allies who show up for the Black story and Black experience. Through working with many of the aforementioned leaders, I have learned and collected resources that may be of benefit to those with an interest in this integration.
Below are resources that I’ve found particularly helpful in working not only with Black populations, but with all people. This work must be preceded by first acknowledging the need for cultural humility over cultural competency; there exists no “How-To” book on working with Black populations, but by asking questions over making assumptions we can make the proper moves forward.
I look at the Cultural Formulation Interview from the DSM, which provides a list of questions to draw during assessment of cultural populations. In addition, Monica Williams and her team developed a tool to assess for race-based trauma.
Moreover, in recognizing the impact of therapeutic relationships to outcomes, it’s important to explore how race might factor into these relationships. We can look to guidance from papers that look at racial identity development which invite us to think about where we might fall along the spectrum, and reflect on how we can work on our own development so that we can best meet the needs of our clients. Getting support in that journey can come from the work of Resmaa Manekem, author of My Grandmothers Hands, which offers somatic abolitionism training, giving guidance for how we can do the deep work of gaining self-knowledge with intention.
While Black history offers a story of overcoming adversity, it’s much more than that. It is also a story of community, of love, of belonging. It is a story of people who have not only survived but have thrived by creating beautiful art, music, and literature, and have built resilient communities impacting our larger culture and the psychedelic ecosystem that’s been nested within. It’s the story of those like Kilindyi Iyi, a Black psychedelic ancestor who inspired a generation of community-driven leaders to think expansively and remember that psychedelics aren’t only for therapy but for accessing our spiritual birthrights. It’s the story of Negus in Nature, who thanks to the changing laws around psychedelics have been able to gather outdoors with their community in Oakland, in a ceremony of celebration, reminding us that a core part of our healing can come from our reconnection with nature. And it’s the story of Blackbird, a community of changemakers, activists, healers, and people of the African diaspora who gather in a circle, creating opportunities for the Black community to access transformational retreat experiences among indigenous and local facilitators right here in the United States.
While many of us know the story of Harriet Tubman, who guided many Black folks to freedom on a pathway out of sight and underground, we also have underground Black psychedelic healers, whose names we’ll never know, who helped to bring healing to their community in the shadows. It was in part, through their efforts, that so much of what we see today has become a possibility. So while we promote the immense accomplishments of Black luminaries, we can also promote those who have and are working to heal the Black community, setting the stage for our re-imagined futures, one that includes those that have yet to be dreamed.