When it comes to treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nothing is better than trauma-focused psychotherapies, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
By centering on the memory or meaning of harrowing and often painful events, veterans can process and make sense of their most stressful experiences in war.
But momentum is steadily growing behind the use of alternative medicine to battle the symptoms of PTSD, including one illicit substance that’s showing tremendous promise in recent studies. MDMA, commonly known as the street drug ecstasy or Molly, is culturally linked to the rave scene of the 1990s. First synthesized in 1912 for pharmacological purposes, the CIA experimented with the substance as a potential psychological weapon during the Cold War.
More recently, however, it’s shown to significantly reduce PTSD symptoms when paired with psychotherapy. The research has been so promising that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted the drug “breakthrough” status and is fast-tracking final phases of clinical trials, in the hopes of developing a new countermeasure to PTSD.
Army and Marine Corps veteran Jonathan Lubecky told DAV—a nonprofit organization that helps over a million veterans each year— that he knows the challenges of living with the invisible scars of war all too well. While he was deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2006, an enemy mortar crashed down inside the portable toilet he was using. He was left without a single physical scratch, but he would later learn he suffered a traumatic brain injury and developed severe PTSD.
This event marked the beginning of a life-changing and dangerous journey involving daily suicidal thoughts, which he acted on five separate times. After retiring from the Army in 2009, he began self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana, masking the underlying problems. He also tried the medication prescribed to him by the VA, at one point taking 42 pills per day. But help seemed beyond his grasp. “Most of what I was thinking was, is this going to be my life for the rest of it? Nightmares every night?” he said. “I felt like the world would be better without me in it.”
But in 2014, Lubecky signed up to take part in a study involving MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, organized and conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organization working to advance the science of potentially beneficial compounds like MDMA.
MAPS’ multiple clinical MDMA trials have shown to reduce PTSD dramatically. Under close observation, Lubecky ingested MDMA three times over 12 weeks in conjunction with psychotherapy sessions. “It worked,” said Lubecky. “Five years later, and I still don’t have PTSD, and I haven’t done MDMA since.”
According to Dr. Michael Mithoefer, the acting medical director for MAPS and a psychiatrist who is heavily involved in the clinical trials, MDMA can break down barriers some may have with PTSD and encourage trust—a vital component of a patient-therapist relationship.
According to Mithoefer, MDMA helps reverse the brain functions that can paralyze people when trauma is triggered. MDMA’s ability to overcome fear and defensiveness, increase empathy and compassion, and heighten introspection can significantly improve psychotherapy for PTSD. Of the 103 patients that had chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD who completed MAPS’ Phase 2 trials, just over half no longer met the qualification for PTSD diagnosis in the months following treatment.
At the one-year mark, 68% no longer qualified. The stunning results were published in the journal Psychopharmacology in May 2019. Phase 3 trials, the final step of research required by the Food and Drug Administration before deciding to approve a drug for treatment, are currently underway at 14 sites across the United States, Canada and Israel. Mithoefer is hopeful that following these stages, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could be an accepted treatment for PTSD by 2022.
However, MDMA, like other psychedelics, remains illegal and can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Under the current regimen, MDMA is never given as a take-home drug, and patients only receive it two or three times over several months.
“DAV is supportive of nontraditional therapies, complementary and alternative medicine, and expanded treatment options for veterans,” said National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “Anything that can safely help our veterans heal from the lasting psychological impacts of war, particularly for those who tried treatment before without success, is worth studying further, which these trials are attempting to do.”
To learn more about how DAV helps veterans, visit DAV.org.
By: Matt Saintsing