2023 has been, and likely will continue to be, one of the most interesting and exciting periods for psychedelic medicine. Organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) are on the cusp of achieving something that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. That something is the legalization and approval of MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This may be quickly followed by psilocybin, which is undergoing Phase III clinical trials (also for PTSD). If psychedelics prove to be as effective as preliminary studies indicate, it could be a boon for veterans with PTSD.
Researchers at well-regarded institutes like John Hopkins, Imperial College London, Atai Lifesciences, Redlight Holland, and others have begun delving into the myriad potential benefits offered by magic mushrooms. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has sponsored some of this research. The VA recently concluded its first Phase II clinical trial using MDMA combined with psychotherapy to treat veterans with extreme PTSD.(1)
Other organizations, such as MAPS, have expanded their trials to include any individual with PTSD (with a focus on survivors of sexual assault). This growing interest in psychedelic medicine starkly contrasts the darker history of the military’s notorious MK-Ultra experiments (covered in the first part of our History of the Military and Psychedelics series) and the decades that followed, in which most research was essentially dead in the water.(2, 3)
This begs the question, why so much focus on PTSD?
What is PTSD and How Does it Affect Veterans?
PTSD is a mental health condition that can occur after an individual experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. PTSD is ubiquitous among United States’ military veterans and sexual assault survivors due to the nature of the traumatic events they have experienced. Often these events are extremely visceral and disturbing. People with PTSD can experience this trauma through flashbacks, or nightmares, which is frequently accompanied by anxiety and depression.
Combat veterans and other military personnel are often exposed to extreme violence, loss, and shocking experiences, which can cause lingering psychological damage. Veterans with PTSD can be triggered by traumatic events such as witnessing death and destruction, losing friends and fellow service members, being under attack, and experiencing injury or harm to oneself or others. Symptoms can include a heightened sense of threat and fear, leading to hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, and avoidance behavior, which are characteristic symptoms of PTSD.
There is also some deeply rooted stigma surrounding mental health issues within the military that may discourage veterans from seeking treatment, exacerbating their symptoms.
Furthermore, the Veterans Administration (VA) estimates that up to 20% of veterans have some form of depression, and an additional 20% are likely to have, or develop, PTSD. Furthermore, up to 11% of veterans struggle with severe depression and suicidal ideation — or will attempt suicide. These numbers aren’t just alarming, they’re unacceptable, and something has to be done. Unfortunately, combat isn’t the only thing service members have to worry about regarding potential causes of PTSD. Sexual assault and harassment are significant problems within the various military branches, with a 2021 report from DefenseOne showing that reports of harassment and assault increased in 2021.(4, 5, 6)
MAPS and another organization, COMPASS Pathways, hope that their research into MDMA and psilocybin, respectively, could potentially provide new treatments for PTSD. MAPS, of course, is one of the most well-known names in the psychedelic medicine industry, having recently completed a highly successful Phase III clinical trial exploring MDMA as a treatment for PTSD, as well as a long-term follow-up study.
COMPASS Pathways is working in partnership with The Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to determine how effective psilocybin can be for individuals with PTSD. Finding a viable treatment option for those with the condition can be extremely difficult. This is because up to 40% of PTSD patients will not respond to typical treatment options such as SSRIs and antipsychotic medication.(7)
Psychedelics Saving Those Who Served
When you think of soldiers experiencing PTSD, you probably imagine the Hollywood stereotype of a veteran having a psychotic break and digging a foxhole in his backyard. While that may happen in some rare cases, for most veterans with PTSD, the experience isn’t quite so cinematic. It is, however, equally terrible.
I spoke with an active duty U.S. Navy Sailor who has used MDMA to help him heal and cope with PTSD that began after a 2018 tour on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. He requested that his name be changed for this article due to the Federal Government’s continued prohibition of MDMA, it’s status as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance, and its prohibition under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
In 2018, Petty Officer First Class Sims was assigned to the Roosevelt as an Aviation Ordnanceman. During his time on the Roosevelt, Sims says he was sexually harassed by a senior enlisted member multiple times. This, and what he feels was his leadership’s total failure to address his concerns, made him feel like he was “less than nothing.” Sims attempted to confront the individual responsible multiple times before things got out of hand, saying the final straw was when things went from harassment to assault. Sims says the perpetrator forcefully grabbed him by the genitals and called him a homophobic slur. He recounts the experience as a “total violation of my sense of self and my dignity.”
Directly following this event, Sims took his concerns to his unit’s leadership. According to Sims, “they really didn’t do anything to help me. I was told to buck up, learn to take a joke, and get on with my job. It took me going over their heads to get anything done, and even then, I was just reassigned, so we didn’t work the same shifts anymore. That was their solution.”
Sexual assault and harassment are not new problems for the U.S. military, much less the Navy. According to the Government Accountability Office, an estimated 40,000 service members were sexually harassed, and 6,700 were sexually assaulted in 2018, the same year that Sims experienced harassment. Additional information from the Rand Corporation shows that 62% of women and 57% of men reported that the most serious sexual assault happened on base or when underway on ship.(8, 9)
These sorts of statistics paint a pretty damning portrait of the military and its lack of response when service members report sexual assault or harassment. Some veterans with PTSD, like Sims, carry those scars for years after the event.
“I could talk about these things and really be okay with it. I didn’t feel ashamed, or less. I just felt like me again.”
According to Sims, “[I] never got over it. I ended up with serious trust and self-esteem issues. It got to the point where it impacted my personal life and my marriage. I didn’t want to be touched [and] intimacy became a problem for me.”
Sims believes that his PTSD from the sexual assault he experienced is part of what led to his divorce a few months after his return home. This began what he called his “doom spiral,” when everything started to fall apart. “I got depressed, my performance suffered at work, and I closed myself off from people,” he says.
Eventually, Sims became severely depressed and developed suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, he was too afraid of possible repercussions to seek help from the Navy. According to Sims, there’s a “sort of stigma around getting help for mental health problems in the military. If you tell them [medical personnel] that you’re feeling depressed or suicidal, then you could lose your [security] clearance or get kicked out.”
Around this time, Sims began exploring alternative ways to combat his PTSD and depression. Initially, Sims says he tried to avoid any sort of drugs. Instead, he focused on meditation, self-help guides, and positive self-affirmation. “That new age stuff helped a little,” he says. But things came to a head one night in 2019. Sims had been drinking, and things “imploded.” Sims recalls that, “it was like all of the fear, worthlessness, and negatively I had been fighting for the last year came rushing up all at once.” He thought about killing himself. “I had it [a pistol] in my hand, and I was just looking at it, and I thought, ‘Ya know, this would be easy. I could just be done with everything.’”
However, Sims resolved to make at least one attempt to “see if anyone cared.” He says he tried calling a few friends, but no one picked up until the fourth call. “I thought this was it, no one picked up, and that was fine. Then I tried one more time, I just really needed someone to talk to. And then a buddy of mine I had worked with a few years ago picked up. We started talking about what was going on, all the things I had been through and how nothing helped, and ya know, he’s always been kind of a hippie. We got to talking about MDMA and some studies he had read about it.”
This catapulted Sims’ interest in psychedelic medicine. He started to “devour everything and anything about it [MDMA].”
“I read books, journals, blogs. I really thought this was something that could fix things,” he says. Eventually, Sims contacted his “hippie friend” again and asked if they could try a dose of MDMA together to see if it would help. “It was probably one of the most positive experiences of my life,” says Sims. “We took around two points (200 milligrams), and I just knew that something good was going to happen. Once we started to come up, I did get a little nervous, and I got this sort of nauseous feeling for a while, but once it was over, I was good.”
According to Sims, he and his friend spent the next five hours talking about everything they could think of. “Ya know, we talked about what happened on ship, my divorce, my depression, almost killing myself. All of it, and it was good. I could talk about these things and really be okay with it. I didn’t feel ashamed, or less. I just felt like me again.”
Since then, Sims says he takes MDMA with his friend once every three or four months. He believes that it’s more than just something to do recreationally to let off steam. Instead, Sims says its, “a quarterly reset, we get together, take a small dose and just talk. It doesn’t matter what we talk about, sometimes it’s serious stuff, and sometimes it’s just two friends spending time together, but it’s always good, and it keeps me sane.”
Sims doesn’t believe that MDMA has cured his PTSD. Instead, he believes that it helps him manage it, and “sometimes that’s all you need.” Of course, Petty Officer Sims isn’t the only veteran with PTSD whose life has been changed by psychedelics. Dozens of veteran-led organizations have begun to blossom all across the U.S., as more and more former service members reach for the sort of hope that psychedelic medicine may offer. Some, like Operation Heroic Hearts, are even launching studies and clinical trials. Others, such as Veterans for Plant Medicine, are leading the charge to get psychedelic medicine bills on ballots in states like Colorado, Oregon, Washington, California, and Virginia, just to name a few.
How Psilocybin Rewired My Mind
Like Petty Officer Sims, I’ve struggled with mental health issues. As a veteran with PTSD due to trauma, I have found that suicidal ideation and depression are an unwelcome but unavoidable part of my personal and professional life. As such, research into the viability of psychedelic medicine is something that I am deeply passionate about. When I left the military in 2016, I had seen ten long years of service. I’d stepped foot on four continents, from the hard-packed deserts of Djibouti to the soaring, snow-topped mountains of Afghanistan (one of the most ruggedly beautiful countries I’ve ever seen). During my time in the service, I didn’t kick down doors, see direct combat, or do much that many people would find exciting (other than that one time I got to chase a hippo off a runway using an aggressively large vehicle). Still, I did come away from my time with the Air Force changed, and not for the better.
Much of my trauma and depression related to a single tour, my first deployment to Afghanistan, where I volunteered at the military hospital at Bagram Airfield. I’ll never forget seeing American men and women, and our Afghani allies, lying in their beds with the sort of injuries you only see in movies and TV. Those sights, and the faces of young people whose lives were permanently changed by their injuries, will never leave me, nor will the scars. After getting home from that tour, I noticed a few things about myself. More often than not, my sleep was interrupted by nightmares, cold sweats, and at least one weekly incident of sleep paralysis. I was angrier than ever, with a fuse that seemed permanently lit. To cope, I found myself drinking: before bed, after work (or during), on my downtime, pretty much any time I could, and almost always to excess.
That coping mechanism and other issues I developed over my last two years of service would follow me into civilian life. I drank to sleep, to have fun, and to numb myself. I was on edge no matter what I was doing or where I was, and anger was my closest friend. Eventually, I’d seek help through the VA. However, I found that the treatments offered didn’t do much to help me. Antidepressants didn’t make me feel better, safer, or less angry. They just made me numb.
Around the time that my VA care failed to show results, I began exploring psychedelics. Initially in a recreational setting, then medicinally. I am fortunate to be blessed with a circle that includes several experienced psychonauts. Eventually, those initial timid steps into the infinite seas of psychedelia led to my first powerful psychedelic experience.
One wonderfully crisp fall night in 2017, my partner at the time, one of my closest friends, and I huddled around three steaming mugs of tea, all of which contained several grams of psilocybin (magic) mushrooms. While this was far from my first experience with magic mushrooms, it was the most impactful by miles.
“You Get the Trip You Need, Not the Trip You Want.”
Within an hour, I started to experience those (now) oh-so-familiar feelings. First, the relaxing body high, a slight uptick in heart rate, and shortly thereafter, the first few trickles of visual distortions. I’ll spare you all the details of the come-up, but not too long after those initial sensations began to arise, my psychedelic trip quickly blossomed into a full-on psychedelic experience. I found myself lying on the floor with my partner while we cried tears of joy and relief. I was processing years of pent-up regret, depression, and pain in a handful of hours. Throughout the night, I would go on a journey that took my mind and spirit from the confines of my apartment and into the universe.
Throughout my trip, I wept, vomited, mumbled ridiculous nonsense, flew through the stars, lost all sense of myself, and gained a profound feeling of oneness with the world and the people around me. I don’t think I would describe the experience as fun, but it was certainly exceptional. As the saying goes, “you get the trip you need, not the trip you want.” My rollercoaster of a night certainly reflected that sentiment.
Most importantly, I was able to jumpstart the healing that had eluded me for years. While I won’t say my depression and PTSD were banished in a single night (I doubt conditions like these can ever be fully cured), I was able to begin to move on with my life in a healthier, happier way. Within a few weeks, I kicked my drinking habit, became more involved with my friends and family again, enrolled in college, and finally felt like I had my life back on track.
My experience likely reflects that of countless other veterans, such as Petty Officer Sims, who have dabbled with psychedelics to deal with trauma and loss that standard mental health treatments just don’t seem to scratch. While Sims and I have shared our admittedly anecdotal tales, I believe events like the night I experienced have a real mental and spiritual promise.
Psychedelics and their potential to heal have begun to gain recognition and traction as viable treatment regimes for conditions like PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, major depressive disorder, and many others. World-renowned institutions are well on their way to bringing psychedelic medicine to the wider public and out of the fog of the War on Drugs. Hopefully, this leads to a new psychedelic reawakening, but I’d be happy if psychedelics simply helped those that need them live the long, happy lives they deserve.
In our third installment of this series, we’ll be exploring the potential benefits that psychedelics may have to, not just help veterans heal from combat, but to go a step further, and (possibly) engender peace.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of individuals in this story.*
This material is not intended as a replacement or substitute for any legal or medical advice. Always consult a medical professional about your health needs. Psychedelics are widely illegal in the United States, and readers should always be informed about local, state, and federal regulations regarding psychedelics or other drugs.
- Medication-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD – Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/publications/rq_docs/V30N3.pdf
- Phase 3 trial program: MDMA-Assisted therapy for PTSD – Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. MAPS. (2021, November 16). Retrieved February 27, 2023, from https://maps.org/mdma/ptsd/phase3/
- Mithoefer, M. C., Feduccia, A. A., Jerome, L., Mithoefer, A., Wagner, M., Walsh, Z., Hamilton, S., Yazar-Klosinski, B., Emerson, A., & Doblin, R. (2019, September). MDMA-Assisted psychotherapy for treatment of PTSD: Study design and rationale for phase 3 trials based on pooled analysis of six phase 2 randomized controlled trials. Psychopharmacology. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6695343/
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Post-traumatic stress disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd
- Va.gov: Veterans Affairs. How Common is PTSD in Veterans? (2018, July 24). Retrieved February 27, 2023, from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_veterans.asp
- Hlad, J. Military Sexual Assaults Surged in 2021, Report Shows. Defense One. (2021, September 1). Retreieved February 25, 2023. https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2022/09/military-sexual-assaults-surged-2021-report-shows/376673/.
- Robhern. (2022, November 3). Comp360 psilocybin therapy study results by COMPASS PATHWAYS. COMPASS Pathways. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://compasspathways.com/our-work/comp360-psilocybin-therapy-in-trd
- Office, U. S. G. A. (2022, May 27). Sexual harassment and assault: The army should take steps to enhance program oversight, evaluate effectiveness, and identify reporting barriers. Www.gao.gov. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-22-104673
- Prevalence of Sexual Assault in the Military: Risk and Protective Factors, Data Sources, and Data Uses. (n.d.). Www.rand.org. https://www.rand.org/pubs/tools/TLA746-2/handbook/resources/data-on-sexual-assault-in-the-military.htm