Ecstasy the solution for soldiers with PTSD, experts say

Popping pills for PTSD: MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may be the solution desperate veterans need. Image: supplied.
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MDMA could help to dramatically reduce the number of suicides among veterans. The Victorian Government is being urged to take the first step. Eddie Russell reports.

The Victorian Government is being urged to legalise the use of ecstasy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in returned soldiers.

Concerns have been raised over the mental health care of Australian Defence Force veterans that has led to an high rates of suicide.

Reason Party leader Fiona Patten raised the issue in state parliament last month, and said this week the matter needed to be addressed immediately. 

Thirty-five clinical psychiatrists in Australia are now seeking to legally use MDMA, also known as ecstasy, for psychotherapy sessions, according to Ms Patten. 

“We know that the levels of suicide in our returned servicemen are completely connected to PTSD and other severe mental health issues,” she said.

Ecstasy the solution for soldiers with PTSD, experts say
Reason Party leader Fiona Patten. Picture by Eddie Russell, via Zoom.

Ms Patten insists that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could be the remedy for the crisis that has sparked a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

“In a regulated, safe environment, the research tells us this [MDMA] is a good treatment, and doctors should be allowed to trial it with their patients,” she said.

It is proving to be so successful, so why wouldn’t we allow that?

“What we want is a trial with returned servicemen who are suffering significant PTSD.”

However, the classification of MDMA as an illicit substance means any medical trial requires permission from both Therapeutic Goods Australia and the State Government.

“Unfortunately, while the drugs stay illegal, it makes it impossible for researchers, and it makes it so much more difficult to get funding and ethics approval,” Ms Patten said.

“Reform is really needed in this area and trust.”

Ecstasy the solution for soldiers with PTSD, experts say
Cause for concern: MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could help ADF veterans and reduce these alarming statistics. Source: Mind Medicine Australia.

During question time on May 6, Ms Patten asked Veterans Minister Shaun Leane if he’d commit to lifting barriers that prevent MDMA from being used for PTSD treatment.

Mr Leane said he wanted to learn more about the issue before making a decision.

Non-profit organisation Mind Medicine Australia executive director Tania de Jong says Victoria’s unique jurisdiction gives it the potential to lead national reform for the use of MDMA to treat PTSD. The group supports expanding psychedelic-assisted options available to practitioners and patients. 

“Victoria is one of the only states in Australia that actually has a permit system that enables these medicines to be brought in,” Ms de Jong said.

“There needs to be a national standardisation occur around Australia, so that medical exemptions are honoured and recognised and that medicines can be brought into those states to treat those patients.”

Ecstasy the solution for soldiers with PTSD, experts say
The risk level of MDMA is relatively low. Source: Mind Medicine Australia.

Victoria’s history of drug and medical reform, such as medical cannabis, voluntary euthanasia and supervised injecting rooms, indicates change is possible.

One recent US-led clinical trial with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy helped two-thirds of its 90 participants overcome their PTSD diagnosis. The recovery rate for those who did not use MDMA was 32 per cent.

The system relies heavily on psychiatric medications, with multiple negative side effects and low rates of success— the remission rates for PTSD sufferers are between just 5 and 10 per cent.

There have been more than 120 current and completed trials into the use of psychedelic-assisted therapies since 2010.

Ms de Jong said access to this method would be lifesaving for returned service personnel.

“Just two to three treatments alongside a short course of psychotherapy and those patients could be having meaningful, fulfilling lives,” she said. 

How could we deny that to people? How is that okay?

“No one has died in these trials, no one’s committed suicide or even wanted to commit suicide,” said Ms de Jong.

“It will save thousands of people’s lives who are suffering immeasurably.”