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April 15, 2021

Interview with Major Steve McDonald concerning award-winning documentary ‘From Shock to Awe’

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Australian war veteran Major Steve McDonald utilised ayahuasca and MDMA to treat his depression and PTSD. He will be speaking at the Byron screening of From Shock to Awe.

From Shock to Awe

Byron Centre, Community Centre  |  Sunday  |  2.30pm  |  $30/25/15 

Can psychedelic medicines treat mental illness?

In the award-winning documentary From Shock to Awe, the use of these cutting-edge medicines is examined in relation to war veterans suffering from PTSD. The film follows veterans Matt Kahl and Mike Cooley through their challenging post-war lives, shattered by the trauma of war. It also explores the impact on their wives Aimee and Brooke. The vets struggle with anxiety, fear, depression, anger, unable to find equilibrium with society and with their families. After confronting death multiple times, our heroes set out on a journey to treat their mental illness with ayahuasca and MDMA.

Australian war veteran Major Steve McDonald utilised these medications to treat his depression and PTSD. He will be speaking at the Byron screening.

Steve, just tell me a little about the film. What impact do you think it will have on the general public?

The documentary follows two US war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as they undergo treatment with ayahuasca, a psychoactive Amazonian plant medicine. It’s an emotionally powerful story that highlights both the failure of mainstream medicine and the effectiveness of ayahuasca as a tool for healing and personal transformation. These two veterans are not only relieved of their suffering; their lives are transformed.

The partner of one of the main characters, also a war veteran suffering from PTSD, seeks treatment with MDMA therapy and successfully resolves her condition after just one session. She was inspired to seek treatment after seeing the beneficial impact ayahuasca had on her partner.

What does the research say? Can MDMA really work as an effective treatment for PTSD?

Yes it can. In 2017 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD ‘breakthrough therapy’ status following the success of Phase 2 research conducted by the US Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).

I suffered from complex PTSD and depression as the result of war service in Somalia and also five years as an emergency-services helicopter pilot attending traumatic events. After extensive conventional treatments including hospitalisation, antidepressants, personal and group therapy sessions, which all proved ineffective, my depression was quickly resolved after drinking ayahuasca. Some years later a single MDMA session proved to be more effective in treating my PTSD than any of the conventional treatments I’d tried.

What other drugs have you seen have an impact?

Other psychoactive drugs that are showing promise in research studies include esketamine (a variant of ketamine) for short-term treatment of depression, and psilocybin (from magic mushrooms) for the treatment of a variety of conditions including near-death anxiety, depression, OCD, alcohol dependence, and tobacco addiction.

The US FDA has also declared both esketamine and psilocybin breakthrough therapies, along with MDMA.

Cannabis can also reduce the symptoms of depression and PTSD for some people and it’s the subject of ongoing research by MAPS.

The University of Sydney is currently conducting preclinical cannabis-PTSD research on mice.

There is a lot of prejudice around drugs and their uses. Do you think that can change?

I think it is changing. Much of the change is generational, as younger people who’ve grown up taking different drugs at music festivals move into positions of social influence. They know from personal experience that the government- and media-generated moral panic around MDMA (for example) is ridiculous and not based on scientific evidence. When you consider that 15 Australians die every day (on average) as the result of alcohol use, the hypocrisy is pretty obvious.

During recent media coverage of the pill-testing debate at Splendour in the Grass, I was reassured to hear some acknowledgement that our recreational drug habits have changed radically and our laws have failed to keep up. What’s needed is a drug-scheduling system that’s based on scientific evidence of harm, rather than politics. There is no scientific basis to our current drug-scheduling system.

It also needs to be acknowledged that recreational use and medicinal use are two very different contexts. Under prohibition, recreational drugs like MDMA become more dangerous owing to the absence of regulation on production and supply. By contrast, the MDMA used in legal medical trials is subject to rigorous quality controls.

Tell me about PRISM and the work you do with that.

I was at the 2010 Entheogenesis Australis symposium in Melbourne when the founder of MAPS, Rick Doblin, offered some funding to help establish psychedelic research in Australia. I’d travelled from Byron specifically to hear Rick talk after reading about the success of the MAPS MDMA-PTSD trials in the US. Following his offer I joined a group of volunteers who launched the Australian non-profit organisation Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine Inc (PRISM) in early 2011. Since then I’ve been a member of PRISM’s management team and my contribution has drawn upon my prior experience as a manager and as a war veteran who’s benefitted from treatment with psychedelic medicines.

It was a very steep learning curve for PRISM at first, partially owing to our naivety as we stepped into the world of drug development with no prior experience, and partially owing to the conservative responses we received from Australia’s academic and medical sectors. After seven years of fruitlessly knocking on doors seeking support to establish research, in late 2017 everything changed. We were approached by St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne for assistance to establish a psychedelic research study and almost simultaneously some generous donors pledged their support.

PRISM is now the formal sponsor of a study to examine the psychotherapeutic potential of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of cancer and palliative-care patients experiencing depression and anxiety. Thanks to funding support from Vasudhara Foundation and Mind Medicine Australia, this study will commence soon at St Vincent’s Hospital and will be jointly led by PRISM and the hospital. In similar studies in the USA the degree of therapeutic impact was directly related to the depth of the participants’ mystical/spiritual experience, facilitated by the psilocybin.

PRISM has been trying to establish MDMA-PTSD research since 2011 but we’ve had great difficulty gaining institutional support. MDMA has a high public profile as an illicit recreational drug and I feel this has negatively affected our attempts to gain support for legal medical research. We are currently negotiating with Edith Cowan University with the hope of establishing a small MDMA-PTSD study in Perth.

What changes would you like to see?

I’d like to see Australia’s drug-scheduling system reorganised on the basis of scientific evidence. When that happens there’s also a lot of work to be done re-educating the general public about psychoactive drugs after 50+ years of politically driven disinformation.

Drug prohibition needs to end. It’s never worked anywhere in any context. Politicians argue it exists for public safety; however, the evidence shows it actually creates harm.

I’d also like to see a relaxation of the conservative attitudes within Australia’s medical and academic sectors towards psychedelic medicine. I had no idea Australia was such a conservative country before I got involved with PRISM. Here we are still arguing for permission to test pills at music festivals when MDMA, perhaps the highest-profile substance in that debate, has been given ‘breakthrough therapy’ status by the US FDA for its radically effective healing qualities.

The USA began MDMA-PTSD research in 2003 while Australia is yet to begin. MAPS is on target to open legal MDMA-therapy clinics in the USA by 2021. At the end of the day our conservatism means unnecessary suffering for Australian patients, who are being denied treatment with these breakthrough therapies.

Australia can expect a wave of PTSD cases in coming years owing to our intensive involvement in wars over the last two decades. This period generated more Australian war veterans than the Vietnam War.

How important is this film for veterans?

The film opens with this quote from Thich Nhat Hahn:

‘Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation.

‘If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war.

‘And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.’

From Shock to Awe offers hope for veterans who haven’t found healing through mainstream medicine. Perhaps more than that, it offers the potential transformation of lives beset by grief and despair, not just for veterans but for anyone suffering from PTSD and depression.

It also provides a glimpse into the emerging field of multidimensional medicine. In other words: a way of healing that affects mind, body, and spirit simultaneously.

I’d like to thank everyone who has helped make the Australian cinema screenings possible, including the Australian Psychedelic Society, and donors Vasudhara Foundation and Aadii Mesh Foundation.

From Shock to Awe screens Sunday at 2.30pm followed by a Q&A presented by Mesh Foundation and Australian Psychedelic Society at the Byron Theatre. $30/25 with tix for seniors and veterans at $15. Tix at byroncentre.com.au.

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