Veterans Affairs Researchers Embrace Psychedelics for Military Vets

Four government researchers spoke with The New York Times about their respective studies involving MDMA and psilocybin as a treatment for military veterans.
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According to The New York Times, the last time that Veterans Affairs (VA) explored psychedelics as a medical treatment was in 1963. This was around the same time that the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Army was testing LSD as a way to “mind-control” enemies. Many decades later, these four researchers are bridging the gap between veteran mental health and psychedelic-assisted therapy. These studies are being conducted by VA clinicians, and the results could lead the way to more studies in the future.

Dr. Shannon Remick, is conducting a study with 10 veterans in a VA clinic in Loma Linda, California. She became one of the first doctors since the 1960s to be allowed to use psychedelics as a treatment in that clinic, which is overseeing the progress of combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Each volunteer will experience three sessions using MDMA as a way to explore their condition, and begin each session with calming activities (such as breathing exercises or poem readings). Sessions are led by the patient, but assisted through the process with the help of a therapist who mainly listens, rather than directs.

“We are alongside and with the patient as they are exploring a kind of excavation site,” Dr. Remick said. “Ultimately, it’s not for us to point and say, ‘Hey, look at that,’ because what I’m seeing may not be the same from their angle.”

Dr. Rachel Yehuda actually delayed her retirement to dedicate herself to psychedelic-assisted therapy. She sought out permission to help PTSD sufferers with MDMA, and began the study earlier this year in January. Her study is examining the effects of MDMA on PTSD patients, specifically to determine whether two or three sessions are more beneficial overall.

Yehuda herself participated in an MDMA trip in 2019 for therapist training. “It made me really understand what it is you’re supposed to be doing in psychotherapy,” Dr. Yehuda said. “I’ve never quite understood what it means to have a breakthrough.” She also noted the importance of doing such a process with “the right therapists.”

Dr. Leslie Morland has over two decades worth of experience with PTSD therapies, and is also exploring how MDMA could help veterans after they return home from duty—specifically as a way to make couples therapy more successful. Her clinical study is expected to begin at the end of 2022, and will study eight participants and their respective partners in San Diego.

“A lot of our military learn to emotionally disconnect in order to be effective in combat,” Dr. Morland said. “And then we’re bringing them back and saying: Now we need you to open up with our talk therapy.” With the help of MDMA, Morland hopes to see an increase in bonding and empathy in her patients. “How do they work together to really sustain the improvements that have been achieved in therapy?”

Finally, Dr. Christopher Stauffer has previously explored the effectiveness of psilocybin as a way to combat substance abuse. One of his studies will review how psilocybin can assist 30 veterans who are addicted to methamphetamine. Half of them will receive conventional therapy plus two psilocybin therapies, and the other half will only receive conventional therapy.

Another study led by Stauffer will review how MDMA can help group therapy sessions for veterans. “[MDMA is] brand-new to a lot of people and yet it’s been around longer than most of our psychiatric medications have been around,” Dr. Stauffer said. “But it feels like we’re approaching it this time with a lot more knowledge and a lot of more rigorous research practices that didn’t really exist back in the ’50s and ’60s.”

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