Summary: ABC 10 Sacramento interviews a former police officer and first responder who participated in a MAPS-sponsored Phase 3 clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. The interview covers the participant’s experience in the trial and personal story of living with treatment-resistant PTSD.
Originally appearing here.
There have been 300 mass shootings in America in 2019, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that documents and publishes data on gun-related violence.
When mass casualty shootings happen, news outlets cover first and foremost the loss of life, the injured, the stories of victims and survivors, the circumstances of the crime and at some point transition into the shooter, their profile, identity, and possible motives.
After every shooting, we in the news also cover gun control laws and the lack of laws that could potentially prevent it. Those who dislike that conversation bring up mental illness. Talking points and coverage about mental illness following mass shooting events almost exclusively center around the shooter.
The last conversation to be had on the topic is about the impact to first responders. There is an expectation that law enforcement officers have signed up for anything that comes their way, but just like survivors of mass shootings, first responders are also at risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with symptoms they can carry for life.
Recent studies show more police officers and firefighters die by suicide than in the line of fire and suffer higher rates of PTSD than the general population, even when these problems are commonly under-reported among first responder populations.
Nick Watchorn suffered PTSD for 20 years after responding to a shooting in Tasmania, Australia while working as a police officer.
“It was a horrific visual sight. I didn’t cope very well with the emotional side of it,” Watchorn said.
For several days, he said he worked the scene of the massacre where a 29-year-old man, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, killed 35 people and wounded 23 throughout several locations of Port Arthur, a tourist site.
“The culture of emergency services back then was very much that either you are strong or weak. And if you’re weak, you can’t really be trusted,” Watchorn explained.
He decided to leave the job. He said he spent years in therapy and taking different kinds of antidepressants, with little changing in his symptoms and behaviors. Watchorn said, after his therapy sessions he would feel better only temporarily.
“It could be a matter of hours, and you walk away out of that office with a psychologist and reality kind of floods back in.”
Watchorn said, after witnessing the scene of the massacre, “it kind of blows the idea of what you think the world should be like and the way it should play out, and shadows it. Then you are kind of left trying to work out how to put (the pieces) back together.” Adding to that, “you can’t really trust people because they’re capable of all sorts of horrible things. And then you don’t really trust yourself.”
For 20 years he suffered nightmares, flashbacks, drank too much, used drugs and engaged in overall risky behavior.
“I kind of felt pretty alone, a little broken and that’s pretty much what I was doing for the last 20 years. Just surviving. Trying not to accept that this was the way things were always going to be, but in the back of my mind figuring that this is about what my life is gonna be like.”
Watchorn described his flashbacks brought about physical symptoms as well.
“It’s two o’clock in the morning. Your mind wanders back to where you were, and your body reacts. Your heart is starting to go and you’re sweaty and now you can’t stop that. This is kind of an emotional attachment to what’s going on.”
The way he described it, he could not control his thoughts, his emotions or his physical symptoms.
“PTSD is such a disabling condition. It can be life-threatening,” said Stephen Eric Sienknecht, Psy.D., Nick’s therapist. “They’re having intrusive thoughts or memories of the traumatic incident. They’re having nightmares. They really have a hard time functioning.”
People suffering from treatment-resistant depression and PTSD have a spectrum of medication to try, but as anyone watching cable TV ads knows, they all come with a wide range of side effects. They are also the types of medication patients need to continue taking either constantly or periodically, rarely acting as a cure.
Sienknecht said, “we don’t have very many good treatments for PTSD. We have CBT, mindfulness, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is OK. It’s one of the best treatments we have and it helps maybe 50 percent of people.”
After three sessions with Sienknecht, the last one a year ago, Watchorn said he is symptom-free. He said he is effectively cured of his PTSD since Sienknecht treated him with MDMA. The treatment consisted of three sessions that began with him swallowing a pill containing pure MDMA, along with psychotherapy throughout the six to eight hours that the drug is in effect.
“During the sessions, I was able to look at things in a way which I would never consider,” Watchorn described.
In psychotherapy, patients are often asked to revisit a traumatic memory or parts of it. For a PTSD patient, the process can be painful, even re-traumatizing.
Sienknecht explained that MDMA seems to be ideal to treat the condition because the drug “increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that’s responsible for rational thinking, planning, and creativity. And it decreases activity in the amygdala, which is the fear response center of the brain. So it’s this kind of perfect combination where it traumatized individual can. Actually think clearly and have access to their traumatic memories without that process being interrupted by this constant firing of the amygdala and the fight or flight response.”
“I was able to go and revisit things that were so painful and see them in a different way. So, instead of now shielding myself from everything. I’m OK with letting things come through,” Watchorn said.