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Ukraine Military and Citizens Seek Psychedelic Therapy for War Trauma

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Ukraine Military and Citizens Seek Psychedelic Therapy for War Trauma

Stanislav Gibadulin lost a leg, fingers and his best friend in a Russian army ambush in Donbass in 2018. The Moldovan-born soldier joined the ranks of the Azov battalion – an ultra-nationalist formation of Ukrainian and foreign volunteers, to defend Ukraine from Russian military aggression. 

While Gibadulin’s physical wounds eventually healed, the deep psychological scars persisted. “I was plagued by feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear, often consumed by thoughts of suicide,” he says. “Unaware of what PTSD was, I struggled to comprehend the turmoil that enveloped me.”

Gibadulin underwent talk therapy and used antidepressants, – the standard procedure for mental illness. “After three months, the intensity of my panic attacks began to subside,” he recalls. “Six months later, the symptoms seemed to dissipate, but I couldn’t shake the sense that something remained buried deep within me.” 

Gibadulin came across articles about psilocybin-assisted therapy as a groundbreaking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. “I immersed myself in extensive research and soon realized the credibility of the information, recognizing it as genuine rather than mere nonsense,” recollects the soldier.

Eventually, Gibadulin managed to get into a psychedelic therapy program in Ukraine. The soldier was reluctant to use the “drugs” (he led a paramilitary group against drug traffickers in Moldova), but eventually overcame his reservations and embarked on a journey of psychological healing. “During the therapy, I was able to truly realize and accept that it is not necessary to blame myself.”

Because psychedelic-assisted therapy in Ukraine is conducted entirely underground, the exact number of Ukrainian veterans treated is unknown, says Pavlo Belikov, cofounder of Ukrainian Psychedelic Research Association). “There is no legal basis for MDMA or Psilocybin assisted therapy in Ukraine, nor for their research,” explains Belikov.

Responding to Lucid News from Barcelona, Belikov shares his insights. Leveraging his expertise in online marketing, Belikov is actively assisting his colleagues in Ukraine by promoting the awareness and benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy through online platforms.

The Mental Toll of the War in Ukraine

Fifteen months after the Russian invasion, the ongoing war in Ukraine continues to inflict catastrophic consequences on the population, both military and civilian. According to Olga Chernolov, a specialist in neuropsychopharmacology with a Ph.D, in neuroscience from the University of Ottawa, the Ministry of Health has estimated that 15 million people will require mental support, with 4 million Ukrainians requiring drug treatment.

Chernolov herself was among the participants of the international conference titled “Psychedelic Assisted Therapy in the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Conditions,” which was held in Kyiv on May 4th and organized by UPRA. The conference was held at Forest Glade (formerly “Lisova Polyana”), a Mental Health and Rehabilitation Center in Kyiv that advocates for the use psychedelic-assisted therapies for war veterans in Ukraine, while waiting for this treatment’s legal approval by Ukraine Government. 

Although the country’s capital, Kyiv, is distant from the battlefront, many international guests, including those from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Israel, participated through videoconferencing. The conference took place at the Forest Glade clinic in Kyiv.

The conference showcased three veterans, one each from the UK, the US, and Canada. These individuals shared their personal experiences of overcoming their respective traumatic experiences through the use of psychedelics, including psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, and ayahuasca.

While the conference was good for networking, there’s still a long road ahead, says Belikov. 

“Psychedelics are still illegal in Ukraine, even though there are some working with psychedelic-assisted therapy for veterans.”

UPRA’s goal is to advocate for the rescheduling of substances such as psilocybin, MDMA, and other compounds, placing them in List II alongside ketamine. This reclassification would enable medical and psychiatric doctors to utilize these substances in therapeutic treatments.

Psychedelics for PTSD

Studies suggest that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is the most promising treatment for PTSD. The treatment may receive FDA-approval before the end of the year, a twenty year-long effort by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). 

It is no coincidence that MAPS founder, Rick Doblin, sponsored the event in Kiev. Doblin made a digital appearance at the conference along with Robin Carhart-Harris, Amanda Feilding and David Nutt.

“There is a big chance of approval of MDMA therapy by the FDA in June 2024,” Doblin told conference attendees in Kyiv.. “But before that, we want to help Ukrainian therapists provide MDMA-assisted therapy to the people that have been traumatized by this horrible war, either inside or outside Ukraine. We really think that [MDMA-assisted therapy] can play a role in helping deal with mental health problems you’re facing in Ukraine. We’d love to do whatever we can to help. Slava Ukraine! Your fight is our fight.”

Doblin explained Eric Vermetten, the retired chief psychiatrist for the Dutch Ministry of Defence, has a team working with Ukrainian refugees with PTSD in the Netherlands.

For his part, David Nutt, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Laboratory at Imperial College London, emphasized the efficacy of both MDMA and psilocybin in treating PTSD. “The impact of trauma on people is not only to cause PTSD. Half of traumatized people get depressed and half get PTSD,” he explains. “Psilocybin is the most prominent single-dose treatment for resistant depression, as Carhart-Harris demonstrated in a study published in Lancet Psychiatry in 2016. There are people that have been cured of a 10-year depression with a single psilocybin session.”

One of the problems with conventional medication for PTSD, like Imipramine, is that once medication is stopped, the effectiveness of the treatment drops by 50%, explains Keren Tzarfaty, PhD in Psychology and CEO of MAPS Israel. “In other words, it becomes a chronic illness.”

“With MDMA we are looking for a safe, long-term effect, nonchronic treatment,” says Tzarfaty, “so the patient gets the medication only twice or three times.” 

International Support

Jesse Gould, an ex-marine and veteran of Afghanistan, was able to overcome his PTSD after participating in a psychedelic retreat in the US. This transformative experience inspired him to establish the Heroic Hearts Project, an initiative helping veterans overcome military trauma through psychedelic therapy. 

“In the last 6 years, we’ve served over 500 veterans and dozens of military spouses as well. The work we have been doing with institutions like Imperial College of London or Universities of Texas shows that these substances have significant benefit to treat depression, PTSD, anxiety, addiction and so on,” said Gould at UPRA’s conference via Zoom. “We want to be a resource for Ukrainians,” concluded the former marine.

Gould’s work motivated other veterans, like Keith Abraham and David Fascinato, to establish chapters of the Heroic Hearts project in the UK and Canada, respectively. These initiatives reflect the global impact of Gould’s work and the broader recognition of the potential benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy.

According to a recent report by Heal Ukraine Trauma, an American NGO, the impact of trauma affects a significant portion of the Ukrainian population of 44 million, and will result. in “widespread anxiety, major depressive disorders and PTSD.” The report suggests that 1 in 4 Ukrainians is at risk of developing a severe mental health condition due to the war. 

“We could only estimate the consequences of this mental crisis after a few years but we could obtain certain information about the extent of the problem from scientific studies about the effects of wars on mental health,” says Olga Chernolov, a clinical pharmacologist and neuroscientist from the University of Ottawa. “According to the World Health Organization , about 10% of people who experience psychotraumatic events will develop PTSD, also 10% will have behavioral disorders.”

In addition to those in the military who directly experience the horrors of war, Ukraine has the “largest human displacement crisis,” explains Chernolov. “Seven million Ukrainians have left the country and another seven million are internally displaced people. Almost 14 million people didn’t sleep in their bed today.”

Road Map to Legalization

The international re-scheduling of psychedelics, as observed in countries like Australia, may significantly influence the future of psychedelic-assisted therapy in Ukraine.

“Ukraine is part of the EU Association Agreement so we have to comply with the regulations of the European Union,” says Belikov. “We are trying to replicate the approach of countries such as Netherlands, Switzerland or Spain, that are already working with psychedelic-assisted therapy, because they are not breaking any European laws with this, they just updated their local laws.” 

Even if they manage to overcome the legal hurdle, it will not be easy to introduce psychedelic therapy in Ukraine, a country with a strong prohibitionist tradition. “The Ministry of Internal Affairs is afraid that these substances could penetrate the black market while the military don’t think this is an urgent issue right now,” says Belikov.

He suggests that the road map to legal psychedelic assisted therapy in Ukraine may come through decriminalization. 

“Step one is to decriminalize the substances. It can be done by the government (The Cabinet of Ministers),” says Belikov. “After decriminalization, the Ministry of Health can initiate the formalization of procedures, clinical protocols and legislation updates. So the Parliament might be also involved”.

Featured image: A funeral during the war in Ukraine. Photo taken by Manhai.

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