From the fallout of COVID-19 to therapy becoming more accepted and recognized and the rise of new treatments, mental health has become a mainstream conversation. But one subset with specific needs remains neglected: Veterans.
Veterans Lack Support When Returning Home From Deployment
Havn Life Director and Veteran Tim Laidler was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. He entered a Veterans’ transition program after his service, and it opened his eyes to the mental obstacles faced once Veterans return home.
“One of the biggest struggles was trying to fit into society again,” Laidler says. He began to lose interest in life and school, and his mind wandered back to some of those roadside bombs he saw that killed and injured civilians.
In a 2016 “Life After Service” survey of Canadian Armed Forces Veterans, suicide risk was deemed higher than the Canadian general population. Similar results were published in a 2017 Veteran Suicide Mortality Study which reported on suicides in Canadian Veterans over a 37-year period. Male Veterans had a 1.4 times higher risk of dying by suicide (with the youngest males being at highest risk) and female Veterans had a suicide risk 1.8 times higher than that of the Canadian general population.
In response to these risks, Veterans Affairs Canada released a holistic Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy based on the scientific evidence for suicide prevention to improve assistance to Veterans and their families, including during the transition to civilian life. The strategy includes disability benefits for some medical conditions, access to Mefloquine for treating malaria, a Veteran Family Program to support families of Veterans, and a Medical Expense Tax Credit for psychiatric service dogs.
But despite what’s currently available, Veterans report that they don’t receive the mental health support they need. Because of this oversight and the stigma that still exists around mental illness, they are also resistant to seeking therapy.
Veterans are Starting to Take Mental Health Into Their Own Hands
Prescription of medications such as antidepressants and antipsychotics is often the first-line intervention for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for many Veterans.
“There’s a huge percentage of Veterans for whom that didn’t work for them, and the side effects were so debilitating that they just stopped taking the medications and stopped trying that method,” Laidler told Truffle Report. “When I’ve floated the idea of them taking part in a psychedelics retreat, they think ‘that’s ok, that’s something I could try.’”
The New York Times reported in 2020 that more Veterans were embarking on psychedelic retreats involving Ayahuasca ceremonies. Rudy Gonsior, an American former Special Forces sniper, said he was urged to take antidepressants at the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital, but he refused based on the side effects he had seen fellow soldiers suffer. In 2019, he became fascinated with the potential of Ayahuasca after listening to a story about it and trauma on the radio.
Jesse Gould, a former Army Ranger, created the Heroic Hearts Project, a nonprofit group that has raised over $250,000 to pay for psychedelic retreat “scholarships” for dozens of Veterans. Heroic Hearts partnered with our organization, Havn Life, to supply future clinical trials with low-dose psychedelics.
“We have an opportunity to explore how psychedelics can impact mental health for veterans and have an opportunity under the current climate of change to make an extraordinary impact on the mental health and overall wellbeing of military Veterans,” Laidler says. His hope is that psilocybin–paired with therapy–can help other Veterans deal with the traumas of war and with their adjustment once their service concludes.
Despite the termination of medical research with psychedelics in the 1970s “War on Drugs” prohibition era, the extensive body of academic research conducted since the 1950s remains. However, the study of psychedelics in relationship to PTSD and Veterans is new territory, and scientists and academics alike have been studying the potential of psychedelics for treating Veterans’ mental health in the past decade.
Psychedelic Studies Involving Veterans
According to a 2018 study that examined recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration of injured service members and Veterans, two-thirds of Canadian military personnel with PTSD do not respond completely to the best evidence-based therapies. This makes Veterans an ideal demographic for studies involving psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
A study funded by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) aimed to assess the efficacy and safety of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)-assisted psychotherapy for treating chronic PTSD over the course of five years. Active doses (75 mg and 125 mg) of MDMA with adjunctive psychotherapy in a controlled setting were effective and well tolerated in reducing PTSD symptoms in Veterans and first responders.
Rick Doblin, founder and Executive Director of MAPS, wrote for TIME Magazine about a volunteer for the experimental study. US Veteran Jonathan Lubecky attempted suicide five times after struggling with PTSD, a result of 12 years in the Marines and the Army.
Doblin wrote: “After his treatment with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, Lubecky healed from his PTSD to the point that he became National Veterans Director for Senator Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential primary campaign. His recovery is not unusual.”
MAPS was unable to get grants from the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, or the National Institute of Mental Health in the US, despite there being over 868,000 Veterans with PTSD receiving monthly disability payments from the VA, at an estimated cost of $17 billion annually.
VICE’s Ben Anderson, who has been covering conflict for almost two decades and was diagnosed with PTSD, tried an MDMA-assisted psychotherapy treatment himself.
“There are loads of people who’ve had much worse experiences than me who would really benefit from this treatment,” he says in his report for VICE News.
“It sounds ridiculous, but even just smiling now feels like more of a genuine smile than I’ve been able to make for a long time.”
In 2020, the first study reported on the effects of ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT as a treatment for Special Operations Forces Veterans suffering from psychological and cognitive impairment. Results provided a signal that both psychedelics may offer a robust and rapid acting treatment option for Veterans suffering from PTSD.
These studies paved the way to where we are now and for the potential for treating Veterans’ health in the future.
Future Potential of Psychedelics to Treat Veterans
In 2020, Mydecine announced the international expansion of its Phase 2A clinical trials exploring psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to treat chronic PTSD in Veterans and Emergency Medical Services personnel. The research will take place at Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, the University of Western Ontario, and the University of Alberta, with other clinical sites on the horizon including Ottawa, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston.
The initial protocol of the first-of-its-kind clinical trial in collaboration with Leiden involved three doses in a study spread over 12 weeks.
In December 2020, Havn Life announced it would supply psychedelic compounds for an observational study run by Heroic Hearts in a jurisdiction where psilocybin is not a controlled substance. The observational study will investigate effects of psilocybin mushrooms on Veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and other mental health issues that are common among Veterans.
Havn Life also announced a partnership with the Westwood Institute, a Veterans mental health-focused non-profit founded by Dr. Marvin Westwood. The Institute’s mission is to expand on Dr. Westwood’s work with Veterans and empower clinicians around the world with evidence-based interventions and clinical training. Group counselling, trauma treatment, and emerging therapies are key pillars of the Institute’s approach.
Master Cpl. Scott Atkinson experienced PTSD after two years serving in Afghanistan and Bosnia. Cannabis improved his sleep and allowed him to eliminate alcohol and prescription drugs, but he told the Calgary Herald that psilocybin mushrooms were the most effective.
“I’d be in a mall and hear a song and start crying, I’d bang my head on a wall—my anxiety and depression was that bad,” Atkinson told the Herald. He believes that under controlled conditions with psilocybin, it would enhance his recovery.
“With mushrooms, I’m able to be myself with my family and when I’d take breaks from it, my wife says ‘please go back on it,’” he said.
Atkinson aims to be Canada’s first military Veteran to undergo legal, supervised psilocybin therapy. He’s applied to Canada’s minister of health for an exemption that would allow therapists to treat him using psilocybin.
MAPS continues to conduct clinical trials as an adjunct to psychotherapy in patients with PTSD under the guidance and regulations of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in collaboration with all federal regulations, including the Drug Enforcement Administration. Interested participants can visit mdmaptsd.org.
Havn Life Sciences is a part of a global community taking an active part in supporting research for psychedelic therapies. This may help with developing formulations used in clinical trials to assess use of these compounds in recovery from PTSD, TBI, and other trauma-related mental health conditions that plague Veterans and other first responders.