MDMA, art and nature to be used in trial for flood disaster trauma

Professor James Bennett-Levy, State MP Janelle Saffin and SCU vice-chancellor Tyrone Carlin at the SCU announcement about the PTSD research.

Susanna Freymark

New research on how to treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by the 2022 floods was announced at Southern Cross University in Lismore today, Friday, May 3.

Leading the research is Professor James Bennett-Levy.

Leading the funding for the research is the Federal Government with $3.8million.

The research project has many ‘firsts’ in its approach.

One of those firsts is using a stepped care model to support more than 200 people who have PTSD.

Stepped care is an evidence-based system for treating mental health, involving treatments from the least to most intensive.

The other first in this research is the use of MDMA (the main ingredient in ecstasy) for disaster-related PTSD.

Mr Bennett-Levy has lived in the Northern Rivers for 23 years. He studied at SCU.

He said data from the 2017 floods has informed this research.

“From 2022, there are thousands out there with PTSD. Their lives are affected through no fault of their own,” he said.

“We’ve had three major floods in the last seven years. We’ve also had major bushfires in 2018–19.”

The aim of the research is to develop better ways for people to recover from disasters, Mr Bennett-Levy said.

The focus of the research is self-compassion.

The team assisting with the PTSD trial.

From the post-disaster research in 2017, it was revealed that people who were hard on themselves had the worst mental health outcomes, Mr Bennett-Levy said.

The arts-based approach to the new research announced today is about making learning enjoyable.

The nature-based part of the research includes forest bathing. The arts and nature activities are group and community based.

This was considered the first step in this stepped approach (the least intensive).

The second step will have 84 individuals trial MDMA-assisted therapy.

“This is a world-first trial of MDMA as assisted therapy in a post-disaster situation,” Mr Bennett-Levy said.

The third step in the research is about outcomes from social connections.

In disasters we can socially disconnect, he said.

Three things trigger PTSD, Mr Bennett-Levy said.

“If you were trapped in a roof or fearing for your life or for your children, that is a key predictor.

“The second predictor is inundation of your house and/or your business.

“The third predictor is displacement.”

At Southern Cross University in Lismore.

Long term displacement where people were not back in their homes six months after the disaster led to worse PTSD, Mr Bennett -Levy said.

“20,000 people were displaced at the start of the 2022 flood. Now it’s half of that.

“How many people have left the region? How many people are in housing pods, living in cars, or at friends? We don’t know these numbers.”

Doing the research now, two years after the floods was important, Mr Bennett-Levy said.

“People feel they were treated unfairly. Self-compassion is incredibly important.”

Anyone who felt anxious or scared when it rained required PTSD treatment, he said.

“One of the things that can happen with PTSD is avoidance. The last thing you want to do is confront the triggers.”

Rain is one of those triggers.

With the funding confirmed, the next step is to get everything prepared and on paper. This will take about four months and then the research plan will go to the Ethics Committee.

Mr Bennett-Levy expected the research to kick off in September-October this year.

Anyone who is interested in taking part in the research can email

State MP Janelle Saffin was at the university for the announcement.

“97% of funding goes to recovery. 3% to prevention,” she said.

“We recover better if we’re better prepared.”

SCU vice-chancellor Tyrone Carlin said the timing was right for the project,.

“While people are fixing up their houses and lives (in recovery mode), the brakes are on psychological processing,” Mr Carlin said.

The Federal Government funding is part of the 2022 Clinical Trials Grant Activity.

Grants totalling $62million were awarded to 26 recipients.

Ms Saffin said the research will add to the body of knowledge around trauma and post-traumatic growth.

“This project not only offers innovative evidence-based practices for trauma relief, but also means something positive can come out of our local experience.”

Photos: Susanna Freymark

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