Psychedelic Therapy is a Promising PTSD Treatment for Veterans. Psychedelic therapy is emerging as a breakthrough treatment for various mental disorders and their symptoms. It has shown proven results in treating conditions like anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and others.
Psychedelic medicine is also proving to be a viable modality for treatment-resistant disorders and may be uniquely suited to help assist a population that deserves compassion and attention: military veterans.
How psychedelic therapy can benefit veterans
Psychedelic therapy combines therapeutic techniques with experiences of psychedelic compounds —referred to as psychedelic medicines. Psychedelic medicines induce novel states of consciousness and emotion that assist and augment the therapeutic “containers” they are experienced within.
Psychedelic therapy helps address mental health disorders by providing: cognitive and emotional distance, novel perspectives, experiences of joy, transcendence, or peace, among other neurobiological benefits. This creates physiological and phenomenological states that invite a deeper sense of trust, safety, and support. These new states help individuals revisit these core experiences from a new perspective, and continue their healing process.
The combination of a psychedelic medicine experience with psychotherapeutic intervention tends to bring out the best of both modalities. This relationship helps clients access deeper emotions, surface new insights and perspectives, and more deeply understand their past experiences. From this synergy, psychedelic therapy can help individuals make rapid and lasting changes to their lives.
Increased research and supporting organizations are leading the way
For veterans who may be working through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and common comorbidities —additionally diagnosed conditions like anxiety, depression, or substance use disorder— psychedelic therapy presents an emerging opportunity for healing.
With this in mind, many organizations and researchers have turned their gaze toward veteran populations as they have exhibited potential for powerful change. Particularly in the treatment of PTSD, studies are underway to demonstrate efficacy and establish psychedelics as a viable and approved treatment for PTSD. In helping veterans return to their innate healing and wholeness, psychedelic medicine has great potential to aid and assist veteran populations.
There are several organizations also working in this space to assist if help is called for. These include:
Service members are at higher risk for PTSD and other mental health conditions
Returning home from the front lines of war brings with it a host of challenges and risks for active service members and veterans. Whether an acute case from a single traumatic event or complex PTSD (c-PTSD) made up of continual exposure to highly stressful and traumatic experiences, PTSD is a condition that affects many veterans.
Current data shows that around 10-15% of all service members in recent service eras reported PTSD in a given year, or are currently afflicted by it. This number is even higher in Vietnam Veterans.
“I’ve seen firsthand how PTSD and depression affect military members, veterans, and their families,”Chelsea Tersavich, Mindbloom Clinician and Army Veteran said. “The majority of Soldiers I saw in primary care dealt with some mental health condition, even if that’s not why they were there to be seen. This affected them, their job performance, and their relationships.”
Helping veterans recently returning, or those who have been home for an extended time, is not a clear-cut path. Each individual is faced with their own set of challenges.Some of these challenges may include comorbid mental health conditions such as: depression, anxiety, PTSD or c-PTSD, substance use disorder. Symptoms such as flashbacks can be disruptive in day-to-day life. Homelessness, disordered sleep, and suicidality are also increased risks for veterans.
“On a personal level, I lost one of my best friends to suicide in 2014,” Tersavich said, “On the outside, he seemed to be doing well and happy. Inside he was in turmoil after multiple deployments and losing many friends on those deployments. His death destroyed his wife and crushed me.”
Challenges in treating PTSD-diagnosed veterans with traditional methods
PTSD can be challenging to treat. Full resolution often requires revisiting and reframing the core experiences in a different, healthier way. PTSD requires resolving contextual triggers and changing relationships to certain events, sights, sounds, or other environmental markers. What makes this process difficult is that these are highly emotional, highly sympathetic states, and bringing someone safely back into that experience is challenging.
As a result, current PTSD treatments often try to manage the symptoms instead of the root cause, working to deal with shakes, lack of sleep, nightmares, tics, and other symptoms of PTSD. However, until the root causes and core experiences are resolved, veterans will continue to be afflicted by these historical experiences.
What makes treatment particularly challenging is that it is often a combination of several challenging conditions that are being treated to varying degrees of success by psychotherapy, pharmaceutical medication, or a combination of the two.
“Traditional treatments for PTSD, especially for veterans with PTSD are lacking. Most veterans deal with chronic symptoms despite multiple rounds of therapy, medications, and other treatment modalities. Psychedelics offer relief and hope for this population that wasn’t available to veterans of earlier wars,”Tersavich said.
Common PTSD comorbidities faced by veterans
Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are among the most common conditions and symptoms veterans see as they return home from deployments or service. These can range from mild to severe in their expressions, and are often mixed in with the other conditions listed below.
The US Office of Veterans Affairs states that 1 in 3 veterans are dealing with depression:
“In 2008, VA estimated that about 1 in 3 Veterans visiting primary care clinics has some symptoms of depression; 1 in 5 has serious symptoms that suggest the need for further evaluation for major depression; and 1 in 8 to 10 has major depression, requiring treatment with psychotherapy or antidepressants.”
Psychedelic therapy is particularly adept at addressing depression and anxiety conditions. Psychedelic medicine addresses both the physical symptoms, such as mood and energy levels, tension, and rigid mental patterns, while also helping individuals address the root causes such as core beliefs, ingrained behavioral patterns, and contextual triggers.
The combination of short-term symptom management combined with long-term root cause resolution makes psychedelic therapy uniquely suited to assist in helping veterans manage anxiety and depression.
Substance Use Disorder
As a result of living with other conditions, or as a means to manage their emotions and experience, substance use disorders are often present within veteran populations.
Providing short-term relief from physical or mental pain at the expense of long-term addictive consequences and behavioral patterns, substance use disorder compounds the already challenging work of providing healing and wholeness to veterans.
This is another major opportunity for psychedelic therapy to assist.
Psychedelic therapy can provide physiological changes that rebalance neurochemistry, overcome withdrawal symptoms, and provide fertile ground for new behaviors to take root. At the same time, psychedelic medicines also provide a neuroplastic window after the experience, where individuals have more space to make different decisions, and allow those to become habituated faster and more concretely.
Considerations & contraindications when treating veterans through psychedelic therapy
While psychedelic medicine has great potential to help veteran populations, it is not without its list of risks, necessary health considerations, or outright contraindications for treatment.
Working with a skilled and compassionate care team, ideally specialized in working with veterans, is essential to maintain the safety, efficacy, and healing potential of psychedelic therapy.
A contraindication is a sign that a particular treatment or intervention is not meant for an individual. Several circumstances can be a contraindication for psychedelic medicine – it is important to reach out to an organization or care team to work directly with them in determining treatment eligibility and the specific protocol.
Many contraindications are not absolute, meaning that the care team can move forward if they deem it safe and the required support is available.
Possible contradictions for psychedelic medicine include:
- Several SSRI and MAOI medications
- Chronic high blood pressure or high resting heart rate
- Personal or family history of major mental illness like bipolar disorder, PTSD, or dissociative identity disorder (DID)
- Recent history of suicidality
- Overall heart and liver health
Different psychedelic medicines have different contraindications, and each contraindication is not absolute. It is important to surface all relevant information to the care team to ensure client safety and provide the opportunity for an effective outcome.
While less significant than contraindications, there are several major considerations when looking at psychedelic therapy for veterans.
Some major considerations include:
- Finding specialized doctors and support specifically oriented around veteran and military populations.
- If the individual has a history of traumatic brain injuries (TBI). TBIs can make treatment more complex, though they are not an absolute contraindication —one which could cause a potentially life-threatening situation.
- Managing pharmaceutical medications. Some are contraindicated, and some side effects may impact the strength of the medicine experiences.
If you have any concerns, reach out for support from a specialized care team.
How veterans can receive psychedelic therapy now
If you are a veteran or military service member looking for support now, there are several options available. Most psychedelic medicine is not available publicly, the two major avenues currently available are clinical research studies or ketamine treatment.
Compassionate veterans organizations
Several organizations work specifically with and for veterans using psychedelic or plant-based medicines, include: