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An alarming issue in the veteran community is the rate of suicide as the number of suicides among past service members in the last two decades has far outpaced the numbers who died in combat. A new way to treat suicide risk factors such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder includes psychedelic drugs which, in a way, comes full circle from the Vietnam Era when psychedelics had their recreational heyday among war protesters to today when they are being employed as therapy to save the lives of military veterans.

War, Drugs, and the 60s

The 1960s were a chaotic time. The USA was locked in a Cold War with the USSR and Communist China but US efforts to prop up the pro-US government of South Vietnam turned into a hot war that dragged on and resulted in more and more protests. It was the time of the birth control pill and sexual freedom. Before inflation sucked the life out of the US economy it was a time of unparalleled US economic and military dominance. And it was the time of sit-ins for civil rights, tie-dyed garments, pot, heroine, and LSD even promoted by Harvard Professors like Timothy Leary. The typically drug-using hippie was against the war and young men who were drafted, served their tour in Vietnam and came home were spit upon by kids who stayed in college to avoid the draft, used drugs, and were absolutely certain that theirs was the moral high ground.

War, Drugs, and the 60s
War, Drugs, and the 60s

Social Rejection of Drugs

American society tends to swing one way and then the other in its views and by the early 1970s it became apparent that widespread recreational drug use was not a good or helpful thing. During this same era there were psychologists and psychiatrists who realized that drugs like MDMA and psilocybin might have therapeutic value if they could be pried away from the “recreational” setting and used as adjuncts to therapy. Unfortunately, psychedelics were effectively banned as the FDA classified them in the most dangerous category and research effectively stopped in the early 1970s.

Recognition of PTSD and Depression as Results of Military Service

It was apparent during the trench warfare of World War I that soldiers developed “shell shock” in which they exhibited signs of what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder. Especially Europe where the bulk of the soldiers who fought in WWI came from there was the “lost generation” of men who never really got over the war and its trauma. It was not until the post-Vietnam Era that the name post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD came to be. Now as the War on Terror enters its third decade members of the military are engaged in operations that last even longer than the war in Southeast Asia. What has become apparent in this era is that veteran suicide rates are substantially higher in those with PTSD and/or major depression. It has been during this era that psychologists and psychiatrists have gone back to looking at psychedelics as a means of therapy for those with depression and PTSD that have not been successfully treatable by other means.

Recognition of PTSD and Depression as Results of Military Service
Recognition of PTSD and Depression as Results of Military Service

Recreational to Therapeutic Switch of Psychedelics

Back in the heyday of psychedelic drug use in the 1960s most took the drugs because it was fun, different, and an escape from the real world. Those who promoted psychedelics talked about how they expanded the mind, etc. That later characterization turns out to be close to the truth in that psychedelics like MDMA and psilocybin do affect how the brain and especially a control center called the amygdala works. A critical factor in psychotherapy of those with depression or PTSD is to revisit past events and especially traumatic events. The problem in severe cases is that bringing up the past causes anxiety and even panic. Thus the patient never is able to effectively deal with their past and continue to suffer the consequences. With these two psychedelics the blocking powers of the amygdala are suppressed and the patient is able to recall past trauma, talk about it, bring it forward to the present and sort things out in such a way that current “cues” do not trigger flashbacks to the past. Unlike antidepressants which have been used for this purpose psychedelics tend to be more effective with just a dose or two instead of taking a pill for a lifetime. And results so far have shown improvement lasting at least six years!  It should be noted that when these drugs are used in a therapeutic setting they are used as pharmaceutical grade and not street drugs, doses are appropriate for the use, and they are use as adjunctions to psychotherapy and not as ways to get high during a rock concert.

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