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Get Real: FDA “Tripping” On Trial to Treat PTSD With Ecstasy

When I first saw the news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the final phase of clinical trials to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with Ecstasy (aka MDMA, aka E) – the illegal street drug that teen magazines had always warned me never to try – I was actually kind of annoyed.

Like many women (and men) with PTSD, I am also in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. So while a nice ecstasy trip would be great right about now, I can’t really consider that option, just like I can’t drink Kombucha, or eat dessert soaked in “cooked-out” alcohol, or try medical marijuana or “psychedelic mushrooms” for my migraines (which have all been “suggested” to me recently either by a waiter or a doctor).

It made me think: Is it really possible that the researchers conducting these trials had just ignored this issue entirely, despite the undeniable prevalence of substance abuse among individuals living with PTSD? Studies have shown that in populations seeking treatment for trauma, up to 80 percent also require treatment for substance abuse.

I’m not a doctor of a scientist, and I’ve never put on a lab coat and spent years studying the chemical composition of any mood altering drugs. What I do know for sure is that the whole basis for sobriety and recovery, in many of its forms, is to be able to find inner peace and function without reaching for something outside of ourselves to sooth our inner suffering.

The Red Flags

Before this trial began, it had previously been found that people who recalled painful memories while on “E” experienced them “less painfully” and “felt their happy memories” more. The end game, then, is to confirm that the reprocessing of painful memories and experiences while on E can help lessen the intensity of the turmoil an individual feels in relation to their trauma symptoms, and figure out whether it’s a “breakthrough” solution for a mental health issue that is prevalent among millions of Americans.

“They’re always looking for a new PTSD drug, even when there’s an enormous amount of literature showing drug-free modalities that work super well for PTSD, especially with discrete traumas,” said health and addiction writer Jennifer Matesa. “Insurers prefer to pay for drugs, which is maybe one reason they’re looking for one.”

Indeed, even though many insurers don’t pay for them, therapies like CBT (Cognitive behavioral Therapy), DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), have proven extremely beneficial, with research to support that efficacy.

When I interviewed some of my former classmates for my book, I found that two young men who met the criteria for PTSD (related to their experience on 9/11 as children) had experimented heavily with psychedelics and swore by their ability to “help them understand their own minds better.”

Yet, to this day, they’re still using other “mind-altering substances” regularly, and don’t quite feel safe in their own skin.

Embrace Your Own Healthy Skepticism

Like any drug or drink, ecstasy creates temporary, artificial feelings that aren’t real. Jason Schwartz, LMSW, ACSW and Clinical Director of Dawn Farm, says that, in our history, there has been a long line of medical and psychiatric professionals pushing “safe” medications to people with addictions.

Skepticism on the part of recovering people, he says, is appropriate.

“I’d be very cautious and, personally, I’d take a wait-and-see approach,” said Schwartz. “This is a very small group of subjects; the researchers have conflicts of interest – which doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong – I’d want to know about the natural course for similar PTSD patients over a similar period of time.”

The current trials, he notes, don’t speak substance misuse in people with a history of addiction.

To be sure, there is a distinction between this and medication for anxiety or depression, sleeping pills for insomnia – all meant to correct biological imbalance and restore the ability to function. They are often essential to a successful and happy life in recovery. I also know that legal drugs like Vicodin or Percocet are also fair game for addiction, and that earlier this year, President Obama requested over a billion dollars from Congress to address the crisis. But something tells me a drug that is typically taken at a nightclub probably isn’t the groundbreaking solution people are hoping for.

Dr. A.J. Marsden, a former U.S. Army surgical nurse specializing in PTSD and anxiety disorders says that, to be fair, there is a negative stigma attached to many illegal drugs because they were “often made illegal by the government before scientists were able to fully examine the potential benefits of the drug.”

“Today, we know that the way marijuana was portrayed decades ago was incorrect, and that there are many medical benefits to using marijuana,” said Dr. Marsden, who is currently an assistant professor of psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.

“By discussing the trauma while taking MDMA, the patients feel more comfortable talking about the trauma, which can help them heal,” she said. “They remain calm, have less anxiety, and are more centered, all of which aids in recovery.”

Still, it all comes down to this: What happens when you take away that safety net?

You can’t stay high forever, and MDMA can actually deplete serotonin levels, which elevate mood. Frequent or chronic MDMA use could severely reduce the amount of serotonin in the brain. I’d like to know what’s happening to them when those serotonin receptors are empty, and they begin to crash, because now there’s an even bigger hole to fill. The gap in this study is full of questions like this one.

Are we treating the underlying cause successfully, or just masking it and setting people up to crash even harder?

If you’re relying on ecstasy to help you cope or process your feelings, what happens when you come back down?

If this does somehow, in the future, become a mainstream treatment, how will it actually impact the day-to-day lives of people in our society?

These are questions we don’t have answers to yet. Maybe we’ll find out one day, maybe we won’t. In the meantime, let’s hope whatever ecstasy they’re producing doesn’t send anyone on a bad trip.



Images Courtesy of iStock


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