February is Black History Month, and the CPA is spotlighting contemporary Black psychologists throughout the month. Dr. Monnica Williams is a researcher at the University of Ottawa, dedicated to making research more inclusive for people of colour. In particular, at the moment, research into psychedelic medicine.
Dr. Monnica Williams is a therapist, author, and researcher at the University of Ottawa (among many others in a very long list of credentials). She has a long history of advocacy, activism, and social justice work, and has specialized in racial disparities in health, research, and elsewhere. An expert in anxiety disorders, she is currently one of very few researchers focused on the inclusion of people of color in psychedelic medicine.
“A lot of my research has been around the experience of trauma, and particularly trauma for racialized people – trauma that comes about from experiences of racism, and how we can best help people who are suffering. When it came to my attention 6 or 7 years ago that this research was going on into MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, I was really interested. Number one – does it work? Looking at the clinical trials and the research that was coming out it seemed to be very effective. And number two – will it work for people of colour? It was quite clear that while the research was promising, it was not inclusive.
Seeing millions and millions of dollars being poured into this novel treatment approach, which I think is really going to be a game-changer for mental health, and at the same time realizing that people a colour aren’t a part of it, that made me concerned – a little angry, actually. This is good enough for white people, why aren’t we getting any of it?
So I set out to research this so we could quantify the degree of exclusion we were experiencing. I was also hoping this could act as a call to action – to bring awareness to the fact that we need to be included and our voices need to be heard, and that treatment approaches have to be tailored to our communities. Not just what we might think of as a generic white middle class client, but there’s a whole spectrum of people who might benefit from these treatments.
It’s also important to note that not only have a lot of these psychedelic medicines been stolen from Indigenous cultures, and some of the methods have been stolen from Indigenous cultures as well. So we have to be cognizant of that when we approach this research.”
Dr. Williams has long been an advocate for inclusivity in research. For too long, people of colour have been excluded from research of all kinds, notably in a variety of psychological fields.
“So much of the research we see is exclusionary, and it not only perpetuates the problem but it’s also a symptom of the problem. Part of the issue is that we don’t have enough researchers of colour to do the research for people of colour. Certainly, there are a lot of white people who do research on these populations, but we have to be included too. As the saying goes, ‘nothing about us without us’. So the research community has to represent us, and we have to be included in it.
One of the big things that I’m advocating is more inclusion – opening the doors to our educational establishments to therapists of colour, and underscoring the need for us to be included. I also do a lot of research bringing these issues to light – how treatments might need to be adapted for people of colour, how therapists who are getting trained now can learn more about how to treat people with a more inclusive lens. Even the few therapists of colour who are coming through are being taught how to treat white people. So everybody needs to understand best practices when working with race, ethnicity, and across cultures.”
Dr. Williams says that through school and afterward she was unable to find a Black mentor in her institution, and for this reason it’s very important to her to mentor as many students as she can who find themselves in the same position as she was in school.
“I do a lot of mentoring of students of colour, because I have not had that kind of mentorship. When I was a junior psychologist, when I was first starting out, the person who was supposed to be mentoring me was actually quite abusive. So I went outside the institution and found my own mentors in the Delaware Valley Association of Black Psychologists. I worked with someone there, and it was good – it wasn’t exactly a fit in terms of the work that I did and the things they did – but I was just so happy to have Black people who were supporting me, encouraging me, and who believed in me. It was so different from my actual environment, and that made a big difference.”
Unfortunately, to this day not every institution has an environment that is inclusive of Black students or professionals. This is why Monnica turned elsewhere when she was a junior psychologist, and it’s why people of colour often look to turn elsewhere today. Creating those inclusive spaces is part of her life’s work, and something toward which the rest of Canada – in institutions and out – can strive.