After decades of reluctance, the VA is studying psychedelic drugs for PTSD and other disorders
Research into psychedelic drugs was halted in the 1960s amid concern about recreational use. Now, the VA is among dozens of medical providers resuming that work.
Jesse Gould, a retired Army Ranger mortarman who was deployed to Afghanistan three times, was diagnosed with PTSD and given all the usual treatments. None of them worked.
“The concussive forces over time can damage the brain. I was not diagnosed with that, but had to figure that out for myself, being around all of these explosions,” Gould said.
Then he discovered therapy using psychedelic drugs, and he said it changed his life.
“A lot of traumas don’t go away but you are able to handle them better," Gould said. "We can’t change our past, but we can handle how we process things and how we allow things to completely take over our lives.... and that is a gift that my own psychedelic therapies have given me.”
Gould is the founder and president of the Heroic Hearts Project, a nonprofit advocating for psychedelic therapies for military veterans. He's among a growing number of people pushing for more research and use of MDMA, also known as Ecstacy, and psilocybin, a compound found in dozens of varieties of mushrooms.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is now participating in at least five trials of the drugs in New York, California, and Oregon. That reverses a decades-long abandonment of government research on psychedelics.
In the 1950’s, scientists saw huge potential in using the drugs to treat addiction and other psychiatric conditions. But when recreational use of the substances grew in the 1960s and was met with a war on drugs, the research came to a halt.
In recent years, studies have resumed at hospitals and universities around the country.
Dr. Josh Siegel at the Healthy Mind Lab at Washington University in St. Louis is working on one of them. He said while data show psychedelics can successfully treat PTSD, severe depression, and anxiety, there isn’t consensus among researchers on exactly how they work.
Siegel said some scientists credit the drugs' effects on the mental journey that patients have while using them. Other experts look to the science.
“These drugs, which are, in the case of psychedelics, hitting specific serotonin sub receptors and this produces changes in brain plasticity, and that’s why the drugs work. And maybe it has nothing to do with the acute psychedelic experience,” Siegel said.
Siegel and his colleagues are excited that the VA is getting more involved in studies of psychedelics, as it is a major sign of overall acceptance of using the drugs as part of a therapy program.
“For the VA to put their resources and effort behind understanding how these drugs work, really, I think, is important because it serves a large number of people, it’s a huge network of clinics that’s very well integrated, so it's easier to consistently collect data across that population,” said Dr. Ginger Nicol, a Washington University psychiatrist.
Advocates for psychedelic use say a big hurdle to their widespread acceptance is a need for highly trained doctors and nurses to administer the therapies.
Eapen Trampy, a lobbyist for Silo Wellness, said patients going through psychedelic therapy are very vulnerable to suggestion and require practitioners of the highest training and ethics.
“There have been numerous scandals where a facilitator sexually abuses the person they are leading through a psychedelic or MDMA experience,” Trampy said.
Trampy said even with those caveats, he is very glad the VA is getting involved in studies with psychedelics. But he is concerned the agency’s public support is measured.
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee heard brief testimony on the VA’s involvement in the research in September.
“VA researchers are engaged in research around this, however they need very specific safety and approvals to ensure that we are keeping our veterans safe while we are exploring these new interventions,” said VA clinical psychologist Lisa Brenner during the hearing. “These current projects are not funded by the office of research and development, but VA is engaged and watching closely.”
That testimony came months after VA trials were underway, and nearly a year after almost identical comments were made before the same committee.
Advocates for psychedelic therapies are hoping the federal Drug Enforcement Administration will take the Schedule 1 designation off of MDMA and psilocybin, paving the way for more research and usage.
They are hoping to avoid a state by state set of decisions as has been the case for medical marijuana.
So far, Oregon, Connecticut and Texas have approved measures allowing the study of psilocybin and MDMA for mental health treatment.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.