Could an Illegal Drug Change the Way We Treat Psychological Trauma?

Graphic Sam Jones

“I realized that I took a part of myself that I thought was evil and bad, […] that did what I did in Iraq, and I pushed him down. And in my very first MDMA session, I had this vision where I went to myself, and it was this Marine Corps self with red eyes and demonic face and torn cammies, just chained to the wall. I went forward and opened up that door and said, “I’m sorry for putting you here, and if you want to tear me apart, I understand.” The eyes went back to normal, and it’s like we became one. […] I realized I needed that part of myself. And I was able to take the things that I learned from the Marine Corps, the discipline, and facilitate it in my everyday life.” — Nicholas Blackston

In the last 11 years, the Iraq war has resulted in the deaths of approximately 4,500 United States soldiers. In contrast, 6,500 war veterans committed suicide in 2012 alone, amounting to roughly 18 veterans taking their own lives every day of that year. The failure of the US government to appropriately take care of war veterans’ mental health and well-being is resulting in far more casualties for the nation than war itself.

Nicholas Blackston, an American war veteran who was stationed in Iraq twice, was on his way to becoming one of those statistics. The horrific situations he witnessed and was involved in during his deployments left deep psychological wounds, the full effect of which only unfolded upon his return home. His attempts to reintegrate into civilian life were significantly hindered by hyper-vigilance, recurring flashbacks, panic attacks, sleep disturbances, and other classical signs of severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

He sought treatment, but he was unable to find the healing he needed. The medication he was given only served to suppress the symptoms without dealing with the root of his problem: the traumatic memories he brought back from war.

Luckily, he was able to participate in a research study investigating the potential use of MDMA as an adjunct to psychotherapy in the treatment of PTSD in war veterans. While MDMA is heavily associated with partying and the rave scene, it holds significant potential for psychospiritual healing when administered in the appropriate context and with the right support.

One of MDMA’s therapeutic effects is the dissolution of psychological defenses such as fear and anxiety, replacing them with an inner clarity that permits oneself to engage with difficult psychological material without the various resistances that are usually encountered. In addition, one’s ability to communicate about these issues is amplified, and empathy is also heightened. MDMA is often referred to as an empathogen for the way it intensifies empathy and emotional processing.

Through his participation in the study and his six sessions with MDMA in a therapeutic context over the course of six months, Blackston was able to directly confront, integrate, and overcome the traumatic memories that had been so detrimental to his well-being.

“MDMA saved my life,” he told a crowd of several hundred at a conference in New York this October. “I wouldn’t be alive and I wouldn’t be here—I wouldn’t be able to speak to you [about my experiences] without having an anxiety attack.” Yet just minutes before, he had outlined haunting stories of being badly wounded by bomb shrapnel, watching his friends burn alive, and dealing with feelings of guilt and responsibility over the death of his comrades, all while remaining calm and collected. His progress was tangible in the very way he was able to speak about his experiences.

Unfortunately MDMA remains illegal and therefore inaccessible to all but a tiny fraction of those who need it, namely those lucky few who are able to participate in one of these research studies.

The results from these projects are encouraging: two months after treatment, 83% of participants no longer fit the criteria for PTSD, and a follow-up more than three years later showed that these improvements are maintained over time.

This differentiates MDMA psychotherapy from conventional psychiatric treatments. While currently prescribed medications for PTSD are taken daily for years on end or perhaps the rest of the individual’s life, treatment with MDMA catalyzes a powerful healing experience with lasting effects. Once the person is healed, there is no need for further treatment.

It is these results that led Dr. Michael Mithoefer, principal investigator in this MDMA study, to feel that it was malpractice to know that these compounds that could provoke these healing states existed but couldn’t be mentioned or used in therapy.

The progress that’s been made in this research is certainly promising. However, it is incredibly disconcerting to consider that the US government and military have not spent a single dollar to support this research; nor has the FDA chosen to fast-track this research, an option that is available for much-needed medicines. Such lack of cooperation in the face of dire need and promising results is shameful and unethical. While the government is comfortable sending young people into these combat zones, their commitment to these people’s health and well-being upon returning is certainly questionable.

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