Health, Medicine, and Psychedelics: The Potential for Change

Originally appearing here. More American war veterans have returned home and taken their own lives than have actually died in the recent wars, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. I have a hard time fathoming such a disheartening reality. This single fact has motivated me to continue working in mental health. Many researchers believe that there is actually a way to help these soldiers, other servicemen and women, and victims of trauma, in general. Using psychedelics as an adjunct to therapy is something that has been considered for over 50 years, but has been hindered by governmental bans on many useful psychedelic substances. Why do we need to bring them back, and fast? We need them back in medicine because an epidemic is taking place right now, and it is affecting the lives of millions of people around the world. The illness is difficult to detect–it is not a virus or cancer–and can be devastating to its victims. In some cases, it can be fatal. This illness is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It was not categorized until 1980, and without extensive neurological tests, a person could actually fake this illness. This unfortunate case of malingering is exactly why so many war veterans go untreated for PTSD. Funding gets tied up with stringent protocols to address malingering cases, leaving those who actually need help without treatment. So what is post-traumatic stress disorder? The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines criteria for diagnosing PTSD; including the exposure to a traumatic event that resulted in a fearful response, with symptoms including recollection of the trauma as a dream or flashback. This recollection involves physiological responses similar to those that would occur in the actual traumatic event. Sufferers of PTSD are constantly in a heightened state of arousal, which can result in anxiety, insomnia, irritability, as well as self-medication and depression. General, everyday occurrences such as loud noises, the smell of gasoline, or other stimuli that might represent those experienced during trauma can trigger symptoms. PTSD diagnosis occurs after one month of recurring symptoms. In the case of war veterans, many decide to join the military fresh out of high school. Often, they are deployed overseas, and are not able to handle the brutal realities of war. They come back devastated and withdrawn from society. Recent reports from the Center for Military Health Policy Research show that 13.8% of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD. That number is based on individuals that were actually assessed. Many veterans are afraid to get diagnosed, or have no idea what is wrong with them. With Hampton Roads having the largest naval base in the world, PTSD is sure to have a significant impact right here in our community. Victims of PTSD are often on a daily assortment of prescription anti-psychotics, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Many of these drugs have unpleasant side effects, a handful of which have been proven harmful on the body, from liver and kidney damage, to diabetes. Headaches, nausea, and weight gain are other side effects that can be very dulling to users. Some side effects are so bad that even more medication is needed just to address them. Treatment can turn into a vicious cycle of pills with no end in sight. How can we address the bottleneck in funding for veteran’s treatment of PTSD, and actually treat the disorder rather than mask the symptoms? There are traditional therapies, such as group therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as newer treatments, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, that are effective in treating PTSD, but they require a lot time and funds. The solution is clear and simple. It is a psychedelic substance, or more appropriately, empathogen, known as methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA); more commonly referred to as Ecstasy. I’m not talking about sending veterans out to raves to party out their worries. I’m talking about offering them a clinical and controlled experience with MDMA that can help them come to terms with their trauma and fear, by allowing them to conceptualize the trauma without having a debilitating fear response. Ralph Metzner, a Harvard psychologist known for conducting psychedelic research in the 1960s, coined the term “empathogen” to represent substances that induce feelings of empathy within its users. MDMA functions by interacting with our brain’s serotonin receptors, which are associated with well-being and happiness. It allows the neurotransmitter to remain in our synapses for longer than normal, giving our brains a new comfortable perspective, and essentially replacing old traumatic memory associations with more pleasant ones. It offers a window of time for an individual to process a trauma without guilt, shame, or fear. Pure MDMA does not carry the risks of introducing other, harmful substances like street ecstasy can. More importantly, research has shown that the controlled use of MDMA does not lead to brain damage as many think. FDA approved trials show 83% of study participants no longer meet the criteria for PTSD after only two MDMA sessions performed by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Sound too good to be true? It seems that treating PTSD with MDMA would reduce the costs of treatment, reduce the backup in the Veteran’s Affairs health systems and address the disorder at the root of the cause. This relief on the Veteran’s Affairs system will positively affect the country’s budget, as less money would be required for treatment. A recent figure for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ budget was at $132.2 billion. As a taxpayer, I would like to see that money used as efficiently as possible. So, why isn’t MDMA being used in mainstream medicine to essentially cure an epidemic? Unfortunately, the patents have expired, so pharmaceutical companies are not supporting its potential. Hopefully, it does not take too long for people to realize that MDMA, once commonly used for psychotherapy and later criminalized for its reckless recreational use, actually has a lot of merit in treating PTSD and other illnesses. This summer, I worked with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana. Through my experience with MAPS, I was able to learn more about the positive side of psychedelics, and how–if respected and used properly–they can not only change the face of mental health, but also create the potential for spiritual and personal growth through intense positive experiences. MAPS is currently conducting a research study, which was recently cited in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, involving the use of MDMA to treat war veterans with PTSD. The trial has also been extended to fire fighters, police officers, and possibly soon, victims of sexual assault. Another game-changing study that was recently completed in Switzerland by MAPS, examined the effects of another psychedelic substance called Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or LSD, on patients who were suffering from anxiety from a life-threatening illness. LSD has also been shown to be very effective in treating alcohol and drug addiction by lessening withdrawal symptoms and allowing the brain to be rewired in such a way that can allow one’s feeling and outlook on alcohol and drug use to change. Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, fully supported the use of LSD to treat alcoholism. In 1938, a Swiss Scientist by the name of Albert Hofmann first synthesized, ingested, and studied LSD. He passed away in 2008 after a fruitful 100 years of l
ife. Said Hofmann, “I believe that shortly after LSD was discovered, it was recognized as being of great value to psychoanalysis and psychiatry. It was not considered to be an escape. It was a very important discovery at that time, and for 15 years it could be used legally in psychiatric treatment and for scientific study in humans. During this time, Delysid, the name I gave to LSD, was used safely, and was the subject of thousands of publications in the professional literature.” “LSD is more important than Harvard,” said controversial Harvard professor Timothy Leary, after he and another professor were dismissed from the university for experimenting with LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. (Psilocybin mushrooms, according to an article released by National Public Radio last year, have shown potential to cure depression; and other studies have shown it to be effective in treating anxiety, OCD, and addiction.) In his quote, Leary may have been referring to the potential impact of LSD and other psychedelics on health, medicine, culture, and knowledge in general. Leary’s autobiography reports an experiment in which LSD was given to 300 professors, graduate students, writers, and philosophers, where 75% of the test subjects reported the experience as one of the most educational and revealing experiences of their lives. The famous psychonaut and “godfather of MDMA”, Alexander Shulgin, says of psychedelics, “Use them with care, and use them with respect as to the transformations they can achieve, and you have an extraordinary research tool. Go banging about with a psychedelic drug for a Saturday night turn-on, and you can get into a really bad place, psychologically. Know what you’re using, decide just why you’re using it, and you can have a rich experience. They’re not addictive, and they’re certainly not escapist, either, but they’re exceptionally valuable tools for understanding the human mind, and how it works.” MAPS Intern Riazul Islam writes for about scientific research into the medical potential of LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin, providing a glimpse into new treatments for PTSD, anxiety, and more.