Lisa Ling, in the CNN documentary series “This is Life with Lisa Ling,” shares her experience with MDMA as a self-proclaimed “90s rave queen.” Her story aligns with the drug’s stereotypical scene. More commonly known as molly or ecstasy, MDMA is a notorious party drug. In the late 1980s, the drug gained popularity with the emergence of rave culture and electronic dance music. By increasing serotonin and dopamine activity, MDMA creates an intense euphoric high, enhancing sensory perception and feelings of empathy, pleasure and compassion.
The drug is commonly stigmatized and thought of as an unsafe recreational substance. The U.S. outlawed MDMA in 1985, categorizing it as a Schedule 1 drug — posing the highest risk of addiction with little-to-no medical benefits.
In an interview with PBS, Jessi Appleton, a patient with post-traumatic stress disorder, described her experience undergoing MDMA-assisted therapy. She said that she felt the effects of MDMA after just three sessions.
“It’s a lot of inner dialogue,” Appleton said. “Sometimes you’re terrified, sometimes relaxed, sometimes it’s other emotions. It’s intense, and by the end, it’s exhausting.”
PTSD is the long-term manifestation of stress responses after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It severely impacts a person’s quality of life, often pulling them toward self-destructive behaviors, isolation and emotional detachment. Symptoms include distressing memories, involuntary flashbacks, psychological distress from unprecedented triggers, outbursts, anxiety and depression.
Appleton is one of the over 13 million Americans diagnosed with PTSD in 2020. That’s about 5% of the U.S. population. With such a high proportion of the population affected, it seems reasonable to assume there must be a diverse array of treatment options. But, that’s not the reality. The Food and Drug Administration has approved merely two medications for PTSD, and those two only provide relief from symptoms, not a cure. In fact, only about half of afflicted patients will enter remission after treatment, though less severe symptoms often persist. The data reveal a public health crisis and alternative medical practices are urgently needed.
MDMA is a potential breakthrough in PTSD treatment. It is not just a band-aid — MDMA acts on the amygdala, the part of the brain that internalizes fear-induced memories. By facilitating memory retrieval, MDMA offers a healthier treatment option, allowing patients to better understand their emotional scars rather than being consumed by them. This process reduces defensiveness, increases relaxation and allows an individual to connect more intuitively with their feelings.
Appleton said she was beginning to give up on her treatment plan before discovering MDMA. She had tried anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, biofeedback and countless other therapy techniques — all of which proved to be ineffective.
“I was hitting a wall,” she said. “I was like this ghost sort of thing, walking through life.”
But that changed after undergoing MDMA-assisted therapy.
“You’re finally able to face the stuff that you’ve been pushing down for so many years,” Appleton said.
She is just one life that has been saved. New research found that 67% of patients no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis after undergoing MDMA-assisted therapy, compared to only 32% of those who received therapy and a placebo. Overall, 88% of the study’s participants noted a significant reduction in symptoms. These results just may put the illegal party drug on its way to being prescribed as a life-changing treatment.
Jennifer Mitchell, head of the study’s research team, argues that the low dropout rate is another testament to its success: only 9% of patients left. A different study on veterans undergoing prolonged exposure treatment, a more common therapy for PTSD, had a 56% dropout rate. According to Mitchell, MDMA functions as a “communication lubricant.” It creates a deeper bond with the therapist, encouraging patients to continue treatment as they face their trauma with less avoidance and embarrassment. In an interview with Psychiatrist.com, Mitchell said MDMA allows patients to develop a lot of self-compassion, which is ultimately what allows them to heal.
“You wouldn’t send this home with people to do it on their own in their living room — you do it in a good, trained treatment facility,” Mitchell said.
Medicalizing psychedelics feels morally conflicting for many people. With a worsening overdose epidemic and stigma surrounding MDMA and its potential for harm, this is understandable. But, the key factor in this equation is how the drug is administered.
The drug is used in conjunction with psychotherapy, and the patient remains with the psychiatrist for the duration of the drug’s effects. Like any prescription medication, doctors are charged with the responsibility to study the responses in the patient. Psychiatrists are obligated to control dosage levels and ensure the treatment is the best fit for the patient.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, the non-profit research group sponsoring the research, estimates that MDMA treatment will be up for FDA approval in 2024.
MDMA is offering PTSD patients an overdue hope at recovery. With such limited options available, psychedelics are needed to revolutionize treatment options.
Kate Micallef is an Opinion Columnist from Boca Raton, Fla. She writes about lifestyle, health, and college culture for The Daily and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.