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.
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:
Psychedelic therapy platforms
At-home treatment platforms like Mindbloom allow you to receive psychedelic therapy in the comfort and convenience of your own home. This can help reduce stressors around finding treatment providers, navigating to in-person clinics, and other unknowns like presentation of symptoms in a public setting.
If you would like to see if ketamine therapy can help you, we invite you to take our brief candidate assessment.
Historically there have not been many promising avenues for long-term, complete treatment and support for veterans. Many cases are managed individually, and though some relief may be experienced, full conditions like PTSD are largely unresolved and untreated.
Psychedelic therapy presents an opportunity to change how the future unfolds for the veteran population. It can offer safe, effective treatment that provides both short-term symptom management, as well as a long-term, behavioral change.
The results are promising, and more treatment modalities are becoming available. While they have waited patiently, we believe that effective mental health treatment for veterans is finally here.
Help is Available Now
Psychedelic therapy may be uniquely suited to help veterans returning home to their day-to-day lives, their families, and their futures. If you're looking for relief from your symptoms, take our brief assessment.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. If you are in a life-threatening situation, call, text, or chat the National Suicide Prevention Line at 988 or +1 (800) 273-8255, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.
Important FDA Safety Information
Ketamine is not FDA-approved for the treatment of depression or anxiety. Learn more about off-label uses here.
Side effects of ketamine treatment may include: altered sense of time, anxiety, blurred vision, diminished ability to see/hear/feel, dry mouth, elevated blood pressure or heart rate, elevated intraocular or intracranial pressure, excitability, loss of appetite, mental confusion, nausea/vomiting, nystagmus (rapid eye movements), restlessness, slurred speech, synesthesia (a mingling of the senses).
Do not proceed with ketamine treatment if any of the following apply to you:
- Allergic to ketamine
- Symptoms of psychosis or mania
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure
- CHF or other serious heart problem
- Severe breathing problem
- History of elevated intraocular or intracranial pressure
- History of hyperthyroidism
- Other serious medical illness
- Pregnant, nursing, or trying to become pregnant
Ketamine has been reported to produce issues including, but not limited to, those listed below. However, lasting adverse side-effects are rare when medical protocols are carefully followed.
While ketamine has not been shown to be physically addictive, it has been shown to cause moderate psychological dependency in some recreational users.
- In rare cases, frequent, heavy users have reported increased frequency of urination, urinary incontinence, pain urinating, passing blood in the urine, or reduced bladder size
- Ketamine may worsen problems in people with schizophrenia, severe personality disorders, or other serious mental disorders.
- Users with a personal or family history of psychosis should be cautious using any psychoactive substance, including ketamine, and discuss potential risks with your MindBloom® clinician before proceeding with treatment.
- The dissociative effects of ketamine may increase patient vulnerability and the risk of accidents.
To promote positive outcomes and ensure safety, follow these ketamine treatment guidelines:
- Do not operate a vehicle (e.g., car, motorcycle, bicycle) or heavy machinery following treatment until you’ve had a full night of sleep
- Refrain from taking benzodiazepines or stimulants for 24 hours prior to treatment
- Continue to take antihypertensive medication as prescribed
- Avoid hangovers or alcohol intake
- Refrain from consuming solid foods within 3 hours prior to treatment and liquids within 1 hour prior to treatment
- Ketamine treatment should never be conducted without a monitor present to ensure your safety