War Veterans with PTSD Are Turning to Psychedelics

War Veterans with PTSD Are Turning to Psychedelics

Matthew U. has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since he left the Marine Corps in 2011. Matthew, who requested his last name be withheld for this story, is rated at 50% disability by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for PTSD, and is also rated an additional 40% for physical injuries from his deployments, putting him at a total of 90% disability out of 100 on the VA’s rating scale. 

After Matthew left the Marine Corps, he returned to Afghanistan as a contractor, making six figures, and lived on the East Coast with his wife and kids. But his experience as a contractor, witnessing corruption on the private side of the war, compounded with his deployment history in the Marines and created more mental-health issues for him.

“I just didn’t care about anything anymore,” Matthew told The News Station. “And I just drank and drank, spent my money, did whatever, and went from being in a 3,000-square-foot house with a six-figure job to sleeping in my car.”

Don’t miss our 50 at 50 series: one current or former prisoner published a day until New Year’s Day 2022.

Matthew’s cuts from the wars ran deep. Though his first deployment to Iraq in 2008 was relatively quiet, his deployment to Afghanistan was a different story. 

“It was a shit show,” he said. He deployed to Helmand Province and was involved in Operation Moshtarak, a major U.S.-led offensive to retake the town of Marjah. Matthew’s unit lost five Marines in Afghanistan and, though he expected to lose some in battle, he didn’t expect to lose nine Marines to suicide later, nor was he prepared to deal with the Afghan civilian casualties inflicted by military operations.

“What really bothered me – the two things that really bothered me – is the civilian lives we affected and the nine buddies that took their lives after we got back,” he said. “Like, kids crying in front of their parents’ bodies. That is what messed me up.”

Matthew’s alcoholism after his time overseas resulted in a string of arrests. He lost his security clearance, was arrested three times and landed on parole. 

He stopped drinking in 2017 after completing a mental-health program at the VA. His doctors have prescribed him depakote, seroquel and more. He experimented with cannabis, which helped a little with his symptoms – self-destructiveness, apathy and dissociation – but he used it too often and it became unproductive. 

40 to 60% of patients don’t respond adequately to exposure-based PTSD therapy.

Matthew said his behavior and mood changed for the better when he started microdosing psilocybin in 2019. Since psilocybin is still a Schedule I drug, illegal in his home state and not recommended by the VA, and consumption of any kind of substance is a parole violation, he must be discreet. The benefits, however, still outweigh the risks for him.

After trial and error, Matthew found a microdose that works for him. With a microdose, he’s more motivated, his dissociation from reality is gone, he’s more connected with himself and other people and more empathetic.

“Shrooms allow me to operate and connect to everything,” he said.

A turning point in Texas

Texas’s HB1802, passed in June, aims to help veterans like Matthew. The bill mandates that the Health and Human Services Commission collaborates with the Baylor College of Medicine and a military veterans hospital to study the efficacy of psychedelic treatment for vets who suffer from PTSD and submit a report on the findings to the governor and Texas House of Representatives and legislators. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) openly supported the bill and current Gov. Greg Abbott (R) authorized the bill without signature. 

State measures like HB1802 and decriminalization in Denver, Detroit and Oregon are moving the needle for psychedelics much more quickly than at the federal level. Two years ago, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced a bill focused on the potential benefits of psilocybin for veterans that was decimated in the house

“I think, especially when it comes to issues of trauma, which is so difficult and complex to treat,” she told The News Station, “I do think that there’s absolutely an opening and there are veterans that are supportive of it.”

A literature review by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found the complexity of PTSD can make it hard to treat with typical depression medications and 40 to 60% of patients don’t respond adequately to exposure-based PTSD therapy.

NCBI also found psychedelics can increase the capacity for emotional and cognitive processing and facilitate fear extinction and neuroplasticity in animals, which may be responsible for its rapid antidepressant effects. Johns Hopkins University, currently leading several psychedelic research topics, found psilocybin can relieve major depression.

Though it may be some time before this research goes anywhere with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Gary J. Kunich, a VA spokesperson, told The News Station: “VHA’s [Veterans Health Administration] Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention is closely monitoring the developing scientific literature in this area.” Kunich says the VA looks for rigorous clinical trials, FDA approval and the “safety of veterans first and foremost.” Considering the VA’s approach to medical marijuana, though, veterans in need of alternative treatment methods are likely in for a long haul.

Legitimizing psychedelic treatment in a pioneer state

Jahmaya Kessler, a licensed professional counselor and psychedelic therapist with the Center for Medicinal Mindfulness in Boulder, Colorado, says positive results are the norm for him. Kessler’s patients typically visit him after they’ve had little success with other therapies. 

“I’m going to be honest. I have never seen it not work,” Kessler told The News Station, referring to psychedelic therapy. “Like, I’m at a 100% success rate. That’s not to say it’s cured, but it’s helping for sure.”

Jahmaya Kessler works with a patient during a psychedelic treatment session. Photo courtesy of the Center for Medicinal Mindfulness.

Kessler works primarily with ketamine and cannabis, since the two can be legally used for treatment in Colorado, but is a harm-reduction counselor for patients who have decided on their own they want to use psilocybin. 

Now that the state is re-forming boundaries with these substances and potential medical use, he’s adamant the center is not the place for people who want to come in and “trip” for fun. 

“We have a commitment not to do anything illegal, and we’re fucking serious about it,” he said. 

At the Center for Medicinal Mindfulness, patients spend time with their therapists to develop a rapport before consuming the medications, and must commit to an orientation, the therapy sessions and an integration session where patients make sense of what they experienced when they’re sober. It’s usually a package of at least three sessions, and the therapists encourage patients to return for more. 

“The expectation is that you’re going to get into some uncomfortable territory,” said Kessler. “Can you cry with me? Can you get uncomfortable with me?”

Photo courtesy of the Center for Medicinal Mindfulness.

Psychedelics help shut down the ego and allow for greater emotional experiences. “Trauma is created through an extraordinary emotional experience,” said Kessler. “It’s an extreme emotional experience that catalyzes fight, flight or freeze adaptations and survival. So the place where psychedelics can be a serious aid is that they help us get to a very big emotional experience and now what happens in that, say where you’ve lost your sense of self, that’s where a big difference can be made.”

These experiences are also more representative of a macro or “hero” dose than a microdose. Kessler believes microdosing can be helpful for patients treating depression and other mental-health issues and make those symptoms more manageable, but the right dose with the right therapy is where real work can be done. 

Though it’s still a delicate line for Kessler and the Center for Medicinal Mindfulness to walk with psychedelic treatment, he believes it’s on the right track. 

“The evidence is starting to speak for itself,” he said.

A net under the rope’s end

Jesse Gould wasn’t interested in the VA’s standardized approach to PTSD treatment. After three combat deployments to Afghanistan, the former Army Ranger returned to Florida and worked in finance. He described himself as high functioning, but still suffered from anxiety, depression and alcoholism. 

Gould knew he needed treatment, but the VA’s approach seemed too short to build a rapport with a therapist, and was “essentially a fast track to medications,” he told The News Station. Since he wasn’t interested in a full talk therapy program, likely in conjunction with medication, there wasn’t much the VA could offer him. The VA’s talk therapy programs can consist of cognitive processing therapy, exposure therapy or eye movement desensitization therapy

After hearing about ayahuasca, a psychoactive tea brewed from leaves of a shrub found in South America, Gould contemplated traveling to Peru for a retreat centered around the drug. After realizing he had more to gain than lose, he left his job in Tampa and bought a one-way ticket to Iquitos, Peru for a retreat. 

The retreat, he explained, was “extremely challenging, but within that [I] found a lot of insights, on both the psychological and physical basis, and possibly spiritual basis. It definitely reset and reshaped my life, and definitely saved my life.”

Jesse Gould poses at a retreat. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Lock.

After the retreat, Gould still sought ways to make sense of his experience and continue treatment or at least have a support network. He also knew the retreat he attended had the potential to help other veterans in need, who may not have had success with the VA’s treatment. 

In 2017, he started the Heroic Hearts Project, a nonprofit that connects veterans with service-related PTSD to alternative treatment programs, including ayahuasca and psilocybin retreats. Usually, they send participants out of the country to places like Peru, Colombia or Jamaica.

The nonprofit is a grassroots organization, working with veterans who typically have a decade of treatment experience at the VA, are sometimes on five to 10 different medications and are still suffering. Most of the project’s applicants, said Gould, are at their rope’s end.

Since the project’s start more than four years ago, interest in psychedelic treatment has grown, and so has the need for alternative options. The Heroic Hearts Project has more than 800 people on its waiting list. The program costs about $4,000, and applicants usually have to pay themselves, although the organization sponsors some veterans who can’t afford treatment. Usually, attendees find their life has improved in some way.

“We haven’t found a person that’s gone through that’s said it’s made their life worse,” said Gould. “It’s either a smaller impact where they’re working with it and it gives them some tools, or a complete life transformation, and … that’s a very cool spot to be in.”

Ayahuasca retreat attendees gather around a fire in a ceremony room. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Lock.

After retreats, the Heroic Hearts Project continues support and treatment through ongoing therapy and monthly check-ins, and it’s hoping smaller, veteran-led communities can grow in places where psilocybin is decriminalized. The organization has sponsored psychedelic bills in California, Oregon and HB1802 in Texas. Until major laws change, the project can work only in small parameters and help create change so more vets suffering from PTSD can be treated on a greater scale – and it doesn’t have time to wait until drugs like psilocybin are lifted from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s drug schedule or passed by the federal Drug Administration and the VA. 

Gould credits Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind for much of the growth in interest in psychedelics, but there’s also a huge demand for effective alternative treatment the VA isn’t fulfilling, hence Heroic Hearts’ burgeoning waitlist. 

“[We’re] happy they found us, but it is also another frustrating point that it’s a small nonprofit that has to take up this burden of something that should be at least somewhat addressed or supported by an organization with tens of billions of dollars in funding.”

Matt Miller is a journalist primarily covering mountain biking and the outdoors. You can read his full bio here.

Matt Miller is a journalist primarily covering mountain biking and the outdoors. You can read his full bio here.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!