Opinion: Current Psychedelic Research Lacks Diversity

by Katya Kowalski


Psychedelics are making a comeback. We’ve recently witnessed a wave of re-emerging interest and research into psychedelic drugs. This has undoubtedly been a beneficial force for breaking down stigma, whilst highlighting the incredible potential psychedelics have for healing deep-rooted trauma.

However, a narrative that isn’t addressed nearly enough is that our psychedelic research perpetuates discrimination. We’ve still got work to do.

Researchers and clinicians in the field have a duty to ensure that systematic patterns of oppression and discrimination are not reproduced in the psychedelic field. Sadly, research as it currently stands lacks diversity. A recent systematic review found that a striking 82% of participants in psychedelic studies are white. Minority groups are gravely underrepresented. 

This is not so different from general clinical research which is plagued by the same issue. The vast majority of our clinical research is conducted in western, white, middle-class populations.

Nevertheless, people from LGBTQ and BAME communities experience disproportionately higher amounts of trauma. These communities often come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and experience greater amounts of psychological distress. 

This means that individuals who would benefit most from psychedelic research are not being represented sufficiently.

If we are to effectively combat the war on drugs, reforming our drug research is certainly a place to start.

Why is it such a problem that this field is largely white-dominated? Our understanding of the world is largely shaped by the research we conduct; if this is flawed, it will continue to disadvantage groups where there is a data gap. This further perpetuates systemic discrimination.

Having a lack of minority representation in research means that treatment outcomes may not generalise to all ethnic and cultural groups.

This is a significant problem. If we are to effectively treat individuals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, we need evidence-based research that is culturally mindful. By including these groups, we are broadening our horizons and understanding the efficacy of psychedelic medicine.

Race has a significant impact on the psychedelic experience through set and setting. Set refers to the previous experiences and expectations an individual brings to the psychedelic trip. Setting refers to the physical and cultural environment the experience takes place in. Thus, psychedelic experience can be significantly impacted by this racial and cultural lens. This needs to be considered and adhered to when designing research.

Particularly as the foundations for psychedelic medicine lay in indigenous healing practices, ethnic minorities need to be supported and highlighted in the mainstream narrative. 

This area undoubtedly requires a cross-cultural approach. It is time to think about how we can restructure psychedelic science, ensuring we do not westernise and white-wash the space. Instead, approaching this field through culturally informed and diverse research methods.

By doing this, we will account for ethnic minorities, improving our understanding and acceptability of these medicines. The western medical framework requires a more inclusive approach to treatment.

The psychedelic movement has been incredible in many respects. However, it has certainly highlighted and amplified the existing inequalities and barriers we face in mental health care. Nevertheless, psychedelics hold incredible promise for confronting some of these issues – we’re just failing to help those that may benefit from them the most.

Right now, we have a data gap and a lack of understanding on the effectiveness of psychedelic medicines on ethnic minorities. Though our drug laws certainly need reforming, our drug research is certainly a place to start. We currently have a white-dominated medical research framework that requires reform and a culturally mindful approach.


Katya Kowalski is Stakeholder Engagement Officer at Volteface. Tweets @KowalskiKatya

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