Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a severe anxiety disorder which occurs when an individual is exposed to extremely traumatic events. The term is a fairly new one, having only been formally recognized in 1980. Prior to that, PTSD symptoms were often classified as ‘exhaustion’, ‘shell-shock’, ‘stress syndrome’, ‘traumatic war neurosis’, and so forth.
PTSD is very common amongst individuals who have experienced assault or who have been exposed to extremely violent acts, especially in combat situations. Individuals suffering from PTSD often experience harrowing flashback memories in which they are repeatedly re-exposed to their trauma, endless nightmares revolving around the trauma, and intense negative physical and psychological responses to any stimuli which remind them of the traumatic event. This often leads the individual to go to great lengths to avoid anything which might remind them of the trauma, and also may lead to an inability to experience certain feelings and an inability to fully connect with other human beings. In other words, the trauma of PTSD is so severe that the individual suffering from it will not be able to escape the wounds of their past, nor will they be able to face the grieving process necessary to heal those wounds. Thus, without intervention, an individual suffering from PTSD will always remain in a state of partially repressed trauma, unable to move forward or to experience life in a positive, joyful way.
How is PTSD Treated Now?
Generally, PTSD is treated with a combination of Cognitive Behavioral therapy or Psychotherapy and medications such as SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), mood stabilizers, anti-convulsants, and extremely addictive substances such as benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium) and opiates (Morphine). These medications are not effective for many people, and most come with negative side effects and the potential for addiction and withdrawal upon the cessation of treatment. In other words, these treatments are not ideal and certainly do not work for everyone.
PTSD in Combat Veterans
Recently, with the seemingly endless American military presence in the Middle East, PTSD has become a very important issue, as many soldiers are returning from combat completely crippled with anxiety and unable to re-integrate back in to non-military life. In 2005, the Veterans Association of America noted a 30% increase in PTSD claims in recent years. Many soldiers return from battle to face significant physical, emotional and relational troubles caused not just by bullet wounds but by severe psychological trauma. The Marine Corps and several other government institutions have developed programs to help service members suffering from PTSD, but many soldiers still remain untreated due to financial troubles, location, or an unwillingness to seek treatment for non-physical conditions.
So how serious is the PTSD problem among veterans? According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 830,000 Vietnam War veterans suffered PTSD symptoms, with 30.9% of male veterans and 26.9% of female veterans experiencing symptoms at some point in their life time. According to a study by the Matsunaga Vietnam Veterans Project, four out of five veterans reported recent symptoms when interviewed 20-25 years after being in combat!
Furthermore, according to a 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 1 in 6 soldiers returning from Iraq were found to suffer from PTSD, but only 23-40% sought help, because many feared that doing so would hurt their military careers. With no one in the government showing any sign of wanting to stop the war in the Middle East any time soon, we can only assume that the number of soldiers who are going to end up suffering from PTSD is going to continue to increase in the near future. According to some estimates, America can expect a minimum of 300,000 cases of PTSD from combat veterans of this war alone, coming to a bill of over $600 billion dollars in necessary treatment, a cost which rivals the price of the war itself!
MDMA and PTSD
The above statistics seem bleak, and if one considers current treatment options, the outcome for all of these psychologically wounded soldiers seems even worse! Fortunately, a number of new studies have been carried out in the past few years which suggest that there may be radical new options available for the treatment of PTSD in the form of several presently illegal substances! According to a 2008 article from AlterNet, MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) is presently funding trials using the popular substance MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methamphetamine, to be precise), also known as ecstasy or X, to treat PTSD. The founder of MAPS, Rick Doblin, became aware of MDMA in 1982, and has since been convinced that it has therapeutic potential.
The drug was given the Schedule 1 assignation in 1985, despite the fact that it has never been proven lethal OR addictive, despite numerous studies of its safety. Doblin hopes that the substance, which seems to increase emotional openness and interpersonal bonding, among other things, will be helpful in allowing individuals with PTSD to work through traumas and to heal them in therapeutic settings. Indeed, it has been discovered that MDMA decreases activity in the amygdala of the brain in direct opposition to PTSD, which increases amygdala activity – perhaps it is this decrease in activity which allows PTSD patients to process their traumas when taking the medicine.
So, in 2008, MAPS began funding studies on the treatment potential of MDMA for individuals suffering from PTSD. And in 2011, another AlterNet article was published, providing an update on the progress of the study. MAPS has stated that over 80 percent of the subjects in the MDMA group no longer qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD at the end of the study, as compared to 25 percent of the placebo group. Furthermore, according to long-term follow up evaluation of the patients, administered about 41 months after treatment, the subjects who received the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy had actually improved significantly over time, indicating that the benefits of this therapy may be quite long lasting!
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs still believes that the best way to treat PTSD is through various pharmaceuticals such as Zoloft and Xanax, which can cause many negative side-effects, including the potential for seizures, addiction, and suicide. This is almost certainly partly due to the massive pharmaceutical companies in the US which are extremely concerned with making sure that as many people as possible are dependent upon their drugs for survival and which have a vested interest in not offering treatments that provide long-term relief without the necessity of continuous pharmaceutical treatment.
Nevertheless, MAPS is proceeding forward with MDMA studies in many arenas. As of 2012, they have created a 6 day program to train therapists in MDMA assisted psychotherapy, have begun a study to allow these therapists to have their own MDMA therapy experience, have created a study for the few individuals who relapsed after the first study, are working to produce the results of the first study in locations all over the world, from Colorado to Australia, and are screening applicants for a new study of veterans, firefighters, and police officers suffering from combat, military sexual abuse, or duty-related PTSD. We will continue to monitor the progress of these studies and imagine that very positive results will be forthcoming. With so many pieces of the puzzle in place, we imagine it is only a matter of time before world governments are forced to recognize the beneficial and life-saving effects of this medicine.
Marijuana and PTSD
Despite these difficulties, MAPS is continuing to move forward in pioneering controversial new methods of PTSD treatment. According to a July article in the New York Times, MAPS in now proposing a new study to look at the potential benefits of cannabis on 50 combat veterans suffering from PTSD who have not responded to other treatments.
According to Dr. Sisley, an assistant professor of psychiatry and internal medicine at the University of Arizona who is working on the study with Doblin, “We really believe science should supersede politics. This illness needs to be treated in a multidisciplinary way. Drugs like Zoloft and Paxil have proven entirely inadequate. And there’s anecdotal evidence from vets that cannabis can provide systematic relief.”
Anecdotal evidence from PTSD sufferers does seem to support MAPS’ hypothesis. One Army veteran who fought in Iraq for 18 months says he used marijuana instead of the painkillers and anti-depressants he was prescribed after returning home. The soldier had been shot in the leg and suffered many head injuries from explosions while deployed, and said that marijuana helped with both physical and psychological pain, without causing the weight loss, sleep deprivation, and other potential side effects of the prescription medication he had received.
If this study is approved, participants will be given up to 1.8 grams of marijuana a day to treat depression, flashbacks, nightmares, and other PTSD symptoms. The veterans would also be observed during periods when they would not be using marijuana. The study would test a placebo, as well as four marijuana strains containing different levels of THC. One of the strains would also contain cannabidiol, another cannabis alkaloid with anti-anxiety effects. The patients would be allowed to use the marijuana at their own discretion, with half smoking the medicine and the other half inhaling it through a vaporizer.
In April, the FDA stated that it all of its safety concerns regarding the study had been satisfied. Unfortunately, although marijuana has been approved for scientific study, the production and distribution of this plant medicine for clinical research is so restricted that it is difficult for anyone to get the necessary supplies to carry out a study.
Despite facing various issues with the government in obtaining study materials despite FDA approval, MAPS is making a great deal of progress in pioneering novel new treatments for PTSD, treatments which will be indispensable not only in treating combat trauma victims but also millions of other individuals who suffer from PTSD after experiencing other sorts of trauma. By doing this work MAPS is also proving what much of the human race has already known for thousands of years – that by working with plant medicines and entheogens respectfully and carefully, it is possible to heal even the most grave wounds to mind, body and spirit. We can only hope that their efforts are successful, and that more and more people will be able to gain access to entheogens which have been unfairly criminalized for no reason other than the greed of a select few power hungry organizations.
1. “Breaking the Drug Taboo: Group of Traumatized Veterans Get Ecstasy Treatment,” AlterNet, February 11, 2008, http://entheology.com/research/breaking-the-drug-taboo-group-of-traumatized-veterans-get-ecstasy-treatment/.
2. Charles W. Hodge et al., “Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mental Health Problems, and Barriers to Care,” New England Journal of Medicine, no. 351 (July 1, 2004): 13-22.
3. Scott Thill, “Ecstasy As Treatment for PTSD from Sexual Trauma and War?,” AlterNet, June 10, 2011, http://entheology.com/research/ecstasy-as-treatment-for-ptsd-from-sexual-trauma-and-war/.
4. Jennifer L. Price, Ph.D, “Findings from the National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study – Factsheet” (United States Department of Veterans Affairs, n.d.).
5. Dan Frosch, “Marijuana May Be Studied for Combat Disorder,” New York Times (New York, July 18, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/us/19pot.html?_r=4.
6. “The War’s Costs,” Digital History, n.d., http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=513.
7. Australian Broadcasting Commission, “When Trauma Tips You Over: PTSD Part 1,” All in the Mind, October 9, 2004, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2004/1214098.htm.