Asian Americans and Psychedelics: What Will Other People Think?

Serena D. Wu
4 min readNov 4, 2020
Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash

I did not set out to make waves against cultural norms or expectations, but as I learned to heal myself, I rode the troughs and crests that ultimately led me to the psychedelics space. Contrary to mainstream belief, certain psychedelics (which are federally controlled substances) in the appropriate set and setting can be powerful tools for healing. To leverage these powerful tools, we need to make waves against the stigma towards mental health and drug use, particularly in the Asian American community.

Unsurprisingly, there are currently few Asian Americans publicly advocating for these alternative treatments in the psychedelics space. While the stigma towards mental health in America is decreasing, the stigma still remains strong and prevalent in the Asian American community. As attitudes towards cannabis and psychedelics shift for Americans, the general perception in the Asian American community is that drug use is bad, even if the younger generation may be more accepting than the older generation. These two stigmas alone may be enough to deter Asian Americans away from using psychedelics to treat mental health conditions, or at least drive them underground in perhaps less than optimal settings.

Ironically, it was the stigma towards mental health in my community that pushed me towards the psychedelics space. When confronting my own struggles, it felt difficult to turn to my family and friends due to language barriers, a general lack of awareness about mental health issues, shame, fear, guilt, and the ingrained worry of saving face. When conventional psychotherapy met its limits, I experimented with alternative options: ketamine-assisted psychotherapy and an ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica. These treatments gave me the profound insights and wisdom to become my own healer. I learned to meet myself where I am as I sit with and work through uncomfortable emotions to get to the roots of my trauma. The positive effects of my healing rippled through my family, as I learned to meet them where they are at and share in their pain and suffering. My story is one anecdote on top of the robust data from many clinical, double-blind studies on psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy, and the research continues to develop to understand the safety risks, efficacy, and to confirm what some indigenous traditions have known for thousands of years.

The mental health situation for Asian Americans is not great. The Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services found that (i) suicide was the leading cause of death for Asian Americans ages 15 to 24 in 2017; (ii) Asian American females in high school were 20% more likely than non-Hispanic white females to attempt suicide; (iii) Southeast Asian refugees are at a high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder associated with trauma experienced before and after immigrating to the United States; and (iv) the overall suicide rate for Asian Americans is half that of the non-Hispanic white population. And yet, Asian American adults are the least likely to seek mental health services, according to SAMHSA.

Things are not much better in Asia. As a 2017 Forbes article pointed out, the suicide rate in South Korea is the second highest in the world, suicide is the leading cause of death for Japanese men aged 22 to 44, and East Asian countries often rank poorly in global wellbeing and happiness indexes.

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

As the Forbes article argued, it would be unwise to ignore the promise of psychedelics for research and investment given their therapeutic potential. Without the stigma, psychedelics could radically improve mental health care for Asians as well as Asian Americans. I couldn’t agree more, which is why I decided to partner up with my co-founders to launch Plant Medicine Law Group. Our mission is to help expand equitable access to psychedelic plant medicine, humanize the legal experience, and help individuals and businesses succeed at providing new opportunities to heal. For Asian Americans, we will have to make waves against cultural norms in order to further our own and collective healing.

Serena is a Founding Partner at Plant Medicine Law Group. A litigation attorney, she began her legal career at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP in New York City focusing on commercial and securities litigation, regulatory enforcement, and compliance. Currently, she is an advisor for New Yorkers for Mental Health Alternatives. She also founded Women in Psychedelics, an Instagram account that showcases the contributions, voices, and experiences of women in the psychedelics space, and Asian American Pacific Islanders Psychedelics Society, a group dedicated to discussions about psychedelics and mental health in the AAPI community.

The information in the article is provided as general information and does not constitute legal advice in any way or manner. Transmission of the information is not intended to create and receipt does not establish an attorney-client relationship with Plant Medicine Law Group LLP or any of its attorneys. Legal advice of any nature should be sought from legal counsel.

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Serena D. Wu

Partner at Plant Medicine Law Group serving psychedelics and cannabis clients to expand equitable access and help businesses thrive in emerging legal markets.