MDMA: It is best known as party drug while going out, but it is experimented in several countries as a treatment remedy for mental health problems. And successfully: a large American study reveals that the drug is highly effective in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Gunfights day in, day out. See how people die on both sides of the battle. Watched your vehicle get shot. American veteran Nicholas Blackston experienced it all during his broadcast to Iraq.
“I was an infantryman so was always on the front line,” Blackston told Nieuwsuur. In 2006, his vehicle was hit by a rocket launcher‘s rocket. “My driver was dead. All occupants were injured.”
His experience caused Blackston to suffer from mental health problems, such as the so-called “hypervigilance,” a common complaint with PTSD that makes you always alert and never really relax. “You always feel like being attacked.”
He also suffered from panic attacks, where he began to cry and scream, and his body began to shake violently. “If I felt that coming, I had to get out quickly to hide somewhere.” Blackston increasingly considered suicide at that time.
The treatment of his complaints was disrupted at first. The resources he received turned him into a “zombie.” “My complaints made me sleep badly, but my medication made my dreams completely blank.”
During his service, he was already in contact with experimental therapy with MDMA. During treatment, the person with the complaints receives a dose of the drug first, and then a therapy session begins.
“I was lying on a table with sunglasses and headphones over my ears, with instrumental music,” Blackston says. “I felt a panic attack emerging, but then heard an inner voice that said breathe. It sounds simple, but by taking a quiet breath, my fear went away.”
During the session, Blackston felt the anxiety attacks come back, but because of the peace and MDMA, he managed to return to his breathing technique every time.
Blackston itself compares treatment to how front doctors remove grit from your arm, but that your body will then heal the wounds itself. “If you get rid of that grit from your mind, the same thing happens.”
Eric Vermetten is a psychiatrist and professor at LUMC in Leiden. He works at ARQ National Psychotrauma Center and has been researching PTSD and its treatment for years. He believes that the results of the American research are amazing. “MDMA therefore turns out to be a medicine, not just party drug.”
Interesting about the MDMA method, according to Vermetten, it seems to work completely differently from the drugs used to date against PTSD. “This drug initiates a different state of consciousness. It can realize a deepening that we don’t know yet in the classical way of psychotherapy.”
In Israel, experiments with MDMA therapy are also being conducted. This man is being treated for a trauma he suffered from severe sexual abuse by his father.
Yet it seems like a crazy idea that a ‘drug’ is used as a medicine. But Vermetten says the dangers are not that big.
“The addiction component and side effects appear to be virtually absent in combination with psychotherapy,” he says to Nieuwsuur. “So it seems to be a very safe remedy too.”
The US research results also show that three quarters of the people surveyed had no PTSD complaints at all after treatment with MDMA.
“We don‘t see that often,” says Vermetten. “We are used to the GZZ and psychiatry that a drug should be used daily. This is a drug that you use only three times in the context of psychotherapy. After that, you can stop.”
But what exactly happens during a session like that? According to Vermetten, the use of MDMA releases a lot of neurotransmitters. “They offer each other an openness to something you disliked beforehand,” he says. “It seems like our prefrontal cortex is on vacation, the rest of the brain gets the opportunity to process what was in the way first.”
The Dutch ARQ is also investigating the drug. Vermetten hopes to be able to offer the drug as a means for PTSD to the EMA in 2024. “But the FDA in America hopefully approved the treatment, so it can go fast.”
For veteran Blackston, MDMA therapy has changed his life positively forever. “It’s like in the movie The Wizard of Oz: it starts in black and white and all of a sudden everything gets in color. When the trip ends, thejourney begins.”
ARQ receives regular requests from people with PTSD to participate in this study. Unfortunately, there is no room for that at the moment.