VA plans research on using psychedelics to treat PTSD, depression

by Tommy Grant

Veterans Affairs leaders plan to launch new studies on the use of psychedelic compounds to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in veterans, the first such scientific work by the department on the substances since the 1960s.

The move comes amid a growing body of research on the positive impact of compounds like methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) and psilocybin in helping with mental health issues. However, department officials said that work so far has largely excluded veterans, and more specific investigation is needed into how those alternative treatments may positively or negatively affect them.

“Veterans and VA researchers have told us about the potential promise of psychedelics to treat mental health conditions for some time,” VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said in a statement released Friday. “Now is our chance to study this potential method of treating veterans with PTSD and major depression across the country.”

Department officials did not say when the new studies will begin or when psychedelics may be approved for broader use in veterans’ mental health care. Friday’s announcement by VA leaders was designed to begin soliciting study proposals from its network of researchers and academic institutions.

VA researchers have already conducted a limited number of studies on psychedelics in federal facilities, but those did not use department funding. The new VA-backed efforts will look at “the effectiveness and safety of using MDMA and psilocybin-augmented psychotherapy in veterans,” according to a department release.

Last September, federal clinicians, scientists and policy makers gathered in Denver to discuss the topic of medical psychedelic use and the potential for integrating them into VA care. Lawmakers have also taken steps in recent months to mandate further study of the compounds’ benefits for troops and veterans, with bipartisan support for the idea.

Language in draft proposals of the annual VA appropriations bill pending before Congress would mandate pilot programs for therapies, including MDMA. As part of the recently passed annual defense authorization bill, Congress required the Defense Department launch new studies this year to analyze the effects of psychedelics on troops suffering from various medical issues.

In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the move represents “an important step to explore the efficacy of a potential new set of promising treatments that could improve the health and quality of life for veterans.”

Department officials said that despite the upcoming interest in the potential benefits from psychedelics, veterans should not use them as part of a self-treatment program.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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