View all news

Healing natural disaster trauma using art and psychedelic therapies

PTSD clinical trial funding James Bennett Levy Janelle Saffin Tyrone Carlin


3 May 2024

Southern Cross University will trial a world-first stepped care treatment using group-based arts programs and MDMA-assisted therapy to help Northern Rivers flood survivors suffering PTSD.

The four-year, $3,824,461 clinical trial, funded by the Australian government through the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), aims to help more than 200 locals left with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the devastating 2022 floods across the Northern Rivers.

It is hoped the findings will provide additional treatment options for those impacted by natural disasters in the future.

Mark Butler, Federal Minister for Health, said: “In a country often ravaged by bushfires, floods and cyclones, the world-first research by Southern Cross University will look for new and innovative ways to help communities recover following natural disasters.

“We hope that this research project will help the Northern Rivers community to recover following the flood tragedy.”

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

The stepped care treatments in this clinical trial will include an arts-based group compassion program and a group-based MDMA-assisted therapy.

To date, there have been very few clinical trials focussed on recovery from disaster-related PTSD. None have focussed on a stepped care model.

“I thank the Minister for funding this ground breaking, world-first clinical trial of a stepped care model in a post-disaster context. Thousands of people are still suffering from disaster-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing Australia's most devastating floods.”

James Bennett-Levy

The project’s chief investigator, Professor James Bennett-Levy of Southern Cross University, acknowledged the support of the federal government.

“I thank the Minister for funding this ground breaking, world-first clinical trial of a stepped care model in a post-disaster context,” said Professor Bennett-Levy.

“In 2022, northern New South Wales, and Lismore in particular, experienced Australia's most devastating floods. Thousands of people are still suffering from disaster-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Our research after the 2017 floods showed that mental health problems were compounded if people were self-critical and blamed themselves. We have therefore designed a stepped care program with a self-compassion focus.”

NSW Parliamentary Secretary for Disaster Recovery and State Member for Lismore Janelle Saffin MP said she was happy to throw her support behind the project.

“This project not only offers innovative evidence-based practices for trauma relief, but also means something positive can come out of our local experience. This research will add to the body of knowledge around trauma and post-traumatic growth,” said Ms Saffin.

“James Bennett-Levy has an international reputation for innovative mental health approaches and a commitment to the wellbeing of rural Australians, particularly the residents of the Northern Rivers region.”

Professor Tyrone Carlin, President and Vice-Chancellor of Southern Cross University, congratulated Professor Bennett Levy for being awarded the MRFF grant.

“It represents the largest block MRFF funding received by Southern Cross University to date and illustrates the excellence and impact of critical research conducted by the University in our region,” said Professor Carlin.

“Under Professor Bennett-Levy’s leadership and expertise, this novel trial will broaden our knowledge about the effectiveness of therapeutic treatments for addressing serious trauma following a natural disaster.

“Lismore is the most flood-prone city in Australia. We know that many in the Northern Rivers community remain traumatised by the 2022 back-to-back flood disasters. Lismore is also the birthplace of Southern Cross University, and with our roots deeply embedded in the community it is appropriate we lead this project.”

Main photo (l-r): Professor James Bennett, Janelle Saffin and Professor Tyrone Carlin.


Clinical Trial

After the Floods: Evaluating a Stepped Care Model to Treat Chronic Disaster-Related PTSD

Step 1 will evaluate a five-session, arts-based program which engages participants in creating compassion-focused artworks.

Step 2: If participants still have PTSD, they may be eligible for Step 2, MDMA-assisted therapy. Prior research has shown that MDMA-assisted therapy is an effective evidence-based treatment for PTSD and enhances self-compassion. 

Recruitment for the clinical trial will start later this year. In the meantime, people can register their interest by emailing [email protected]

Partners for PTSD clinical trial
Professor James Bennett-Levy with some of the partners involved in the clinical trial.

Media contact

Sharlene King, Media Office at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or [email protected]