Psychedelics offer new hope for healing PTSD

State and federal lawmakers are working to expand clinical trials to treat PTSD, depression, addiction, and anxiety.
Published: May. 15, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: May. 15, 2023 at 9:47 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — There’s a new shift on the horizon in the fight to treat post-traumatic stress disorder using psychedelics. State and federal lawmakers are working to expand clinical trials to treat PTSD, depression, addiction, and anxiety.

When you hear about psychedelics, many people think of the 1960s counter-culture and illegal use that sparked a major crackdown. Now, the United States Food and Drug Administration is fast-tracking many of these drugs as a breakthrough therapy, opening a world of possibilities for hope and healing.

Marine combat veteran Juliana Mercer is on the other side of her toughest battle. “I personally healed using psilocybin mushrooms overnight. It saved my life,” Mercer said.

She grew up in Sierra Vista, down in southern Arizona. She spent 16 years in service, then another five working with the Wounded Warrior Battalion. “It’s losses on the battlefield, and what’s worse are the losses at home,” Mercer said. She lost friends to suicide and saw firsthand the toll of carrying so many struggles from service into civilian life. “Surf therapy, equine therapy, yoga, regular talk therapy, medications, none of it has moved the needle,” Mercer said.

While the United States Department of Veterans Affairs is tracking 17 veteran suicides a day, a recent watchdog report says it’s much closer to 44. Mercer went all the way to Costa Rica for psilocybin therapy. The so-called magic mushrooms have been used for centuries by indigenous tribes for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. While it’s not legal here yet, that could soon be changing. State house lawmakers pushed to approve HB 2486, a $30 million study on psilocybin. While it passed in committee and never got a full house vote, the recently approved state budget shows $5 million for Psilocybin Clinical Research Grants through DHS.

The bill seeks to provide $30 million to help learn more about how mushrooms can potentially assist with conditions such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

The team at DayTryp, a psychedelic wellness sanctuary in Phoenix’s Arcadia District, says they are ready to expand into that arena. “We’re really blending East and West here,” says Daytryp COO and strategic consultant Rudy Montijo.

Right now, they’re using ketamine-assisted psychotherapy, a shot in the arm to unlock healing for people with suppressed trauma. We talked with Ben, an Arizona Army veteran who’s been exploring this new therapy. “After I tried to commit suicide, I did a lot of internal searching. Something’s got to change,” he said. He says he’s found something here at Daytryp he never felt after years of therapy and pills. “You just feel absolutely at peace,” he said.

He let us in the room for his third ketamine session at Daytryp. “You just get the sense that something’s being healed on the inside,” Ben said. “And I still process it days later,” he said. After eight years in the Army and another 12 in federal law enforcement, the scars on his arm, evidence of his darkest days, compound his internal pain with shame. “It really comes down to asking for help and that’s not something that’s in us to do,” Ben said. He’s here because he promised his family he wouldn’t give up again. “They suffered a lot watching me break,” he said.

“What psychedelics do, whether it’s psilocybin or ketamine, is they do the heavy lifting for you. So things that are locked down in your subconscious, it brings them up to the conscious where they can be processed and then let go,” Montijo said.

Each client is assigned a so-called “trip guide,” to see them through the treatment. Licensed medical staff ensure a safe, soothing setting and act as a scribe making notations of your audible thoughts during the procedure you can later process with a therapist.

It’s still unclear how psychedelics in therapy will be regulated, though. There’s a basic understanding in the industry that focuses on controlling the set and setting. “Imagine taking a psychedelic in Times Square versus a place that is soft and organic and healing. You can have two different experiences, so, when people talk about a ‘bad trip,’ typically that is associated with a bad setting,” Montijo said.

DayTryp is using ketamine-assisted psychotherapy.
DayTryp is using ketamine-assisted psychotherapy.(Arizona's Family)

His team does a full bio-psycho-social assessment of psychiatric and medical history because it’s not for everyone. Ketamine chemically affects the glutamate receptors in your brain, which are the most powerful neurotransmitters. Psychedelics mute fear and pain and heighten awareness to help you process trauma you can’t otherwise face. Your mind and body are powerful, constantly at work to default into protect mode when you experience trauma, setting up walls to block images and experiences that trigger emotional and physical pain.

Then there are people like Dave Romanelli who make a conscious effort to never show their pain to others. He came to Daytryp for help after his little girl was diagnosed with leukemia. “It’s not supposed to happen to your 3-year-old,” Romanelli said.

“She never knew the word cancer,” he added. His family did everything they could to be strong to shield her from the reality of her diagnosis. And that weight takes a toll on your heart and body.

She’s cancer-free now, finishing her last treatment last September. “I needed to do something different and psychedelic therapy was profoundly impactful,” Romanelli said. He says ketamine is like lifting a filter your brain and body set in default to protect you from physical and emotional pain. “You feel like you pressed control alt delete and you have a chance to remember what it was like before you were so worried,” Romanelli said. He says ketamine helped him reset. “It’s like you’ve been freed from your burdens.”

That success is pushing advocates to expand access to other psychedelics for therapeutic treatments. House lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are asking the VA secretary to expand access to methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), or ecstasy. “This is literally life-saving measures for our veterans,” said South Carolina Republican Rep. Nancy Mace. Right now, all seven MDMA clinical trials the VA are running are all privately funded. “This is ‘it.’ I mean, this is just huge in what it can do for our vets so how do we get this to all of our facilities across the country?” Mace asked.

“We need them to get more skin in the game,” said Mercer. She’s been lobbying in D.C., asking the VA to add it to their budget for the coming year. “Nonprofits have waitlists of hundreds of veterans that are desperate for care,” Mercer said.

And the results are staggering, proving 88% effective in reducing symptoms and 67% effective in curing PTSD. “Two-thirds of the veterans that have used MDMA treatment no longer qualify for PTSD diagnosis,” Mercer said. “I woke up the next day, looked in the mirror and realized I had shed almost 20 years’ worth of trauma and grief,” Mercer added. While results can happen overnight, as they did for Mercer, FDA approval takes time. It’s still unclear who would regulate specialists and costs, which right now average around $1,500 and is not covered by most insurance.

MDMA is on track to get the green light next year, paving the way for psilocybin and other psychedelics to heal the unseen scars too many of our soldiers have been carrying alone.