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The Veterans’ Experience: Psychedelic Treatments for PTSD

The Veteran's Experience: Psychedelic Treatments for PTSD
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An increasing number of veterans affected by war trauma are looking outside the Veterans Administration (VA) system to regain their sense of well-being. Some veterans impacted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are healing with the aid of psychedelic plant medicines. This article aims to inform the skeptical veteran who is seeking to learn about the psychedelic treatment of fellow veterans’ experiences.   

In this article, we will highlight three organizations that facilitate psychedelic treatments for veterans. We will look at their individual programs, various psychedelic substances, and the resulting positive life-changing impact for those who have been through their programs. In total, these three organizations have helped several hundred veterans overcome the effects of PTSD and TBI. 

Heroic Hearts Project 

Jesse Gould is a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan. He struggled with mental trauma from his service and was diagnosed with PTSD. He tried the traditional treatments offered to most veterans with PTSD, but with no meaningful results. Jesse grew frustrated and sought alternative treatment.  

This led Jesse to a retreat center in Peru where he experienced the powerful healing effects of ayahuasca. It was a transformative experience that helped him move beyond his trauma. After this experience, Jesse wanted to help other veterans and founded Heroic Hearts Project (HHP) as a means to do so. HHP is a non-profit that connects military veterans struggling with mental trauma to psychedelic therapies in countries where they are legal. HHP provides financial scholarships to veterans who qualify for their program. 

The HHP program is rigorous, and ensures that the veteran is committed to their own healing process. This includes diligent preparation in the months leading up to the actual psychedelic experience. Although HHP connects veterans to several psychedelic treatment options, most choose ayahuasca retreat centers in Peru and Costa Rica.

Why Ayahuasca?

Jesse has noted that veterans prefer ayahuasca because it is a challenging and intense experience. In addition, there is growing evidence that ayahuasca heals neurological damage associated with TBI. Furthermore, traveling to another country and participating in an indigenous culture’s healing ceremony eliminates any recreational association with the veteran’s experience.  

A Brief Look at the Ayahuasca Experience

The ayahuasca retreat is typically 7-10 days. During this period there are four ayahuasca ceremonies. The ceremony is guided by knowledgable and experienced shamans. The ceremony begins by having each person drink a cup of the ayahuasca “brew”. Shortly after consuming the brew, one enters a “waking dream-like state” that typically lasts 4-6 hours. During this dream-like state, each person has their own unique experience. However, there are some common characteristics that veterans report.  

Most individuals report having powerful visions that are beyond description. The experience is physically, emotionally, and spiritually challenging. It can also be frightening as one is brought face-to-face with traumatic experiences buried in the subconscious. While difficult, many veterans experience this as a chance to process trauma and to heal deeply rooted emotional scars. 

Life-Changing Transformation

Although the experience is challenging, there is always a sense of safety in set and setting and a feeling of being supported. In the end, the ayahuasca experience is empowering and healing. Most veterans experience an immediate and profound life-changing impact. They move beyond the debilitating effects of PTSD and TBI, ready to fully live, love, and find purpose and joy in every moment. Many veterans even report a greater sense of well-being than they had ever known!  

In addition, it is common for ayahuasca to eradicate suicidal ideation. Jesse has reported that several program participants have overcome their struggles with suicidal thoughts after their first ayahuasca ceremony. Despite the transformation that takes place during the ayahuasca ceremonies, this is just the first step in the healing process. The overall HHP program is designed to ensure the veteran’s long-term success. 

Integration and Maintenance 

After returning from the retreat, the veteran participates in an integration and coaching program. Integration helps the veteran “make sense” of the ayahuasca ceremony experiences, and incorporate them into everyday life. In addition, program participants incorporate lifestyle practices that help them maintain well-being. It is common for individuals to practice meditation, yoga, regular exercise, and so forth. It follows that the coaching program helps the veteran remain accountable for maintaining these practices. 

A single ayahuasca retreat can result in positive mental and physical well-being for extended periods, even indefinitely, as long as diligent wellness practices are maintained. Thus far, HHP program participants have experienced consistent and lasting positive outcomes.  

Visit the HHP website and load up the Straight Outta Combat Radio podcast to hear Jesse’s story and to learn more about HHP.

Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions

Marcus Capone spent 13 years as a Navy SEAL, with regular exposure to concussive forces from explosives and weapons fire. Later in his career, Marcus experienced symptoms of depression and was diagnosed with PTSD and TBI. Like many other veterans, he had no success with the traditional VA treatments. Marcus’ condition continued to decline as he experienced memory loss, increased agitation, aggression, and even struggled with simple tasks. 

Amber Capone, Marcus’ wife, was convinced that Marcus was experiencing neurological decline as a result of blast scarring on the brain from years of exposure to concussive forces. Unwilling to let her husband suffer, Amber pursued many conventional treatments for Marcus – including five separate brain clinics. There was no alternative treatment that improved Marcus’ condition.

Eventually, Amber found a treatment center in Mexico that treats patients with Ibogaine and 5-Meo-DMT. The Capones have dubbed this the “Nuclear Option”, as these are considered the most powerful psychedelic substances. Although skeptical, Amber prayed for a miracle while Marcus headed to Mexico for the Nuclear Option treatment.

After one session – Ibogaine followed by 5-Meo-DMT – Marcus experienced a return to normalcy. He felt human again, full of love and gratitude, and regained normal neurological and cognitive functioning. The Capones knew this was a miracle, and felt compelled to pay it forward. 

Thus, they established Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS). VETS is a non-profit that provides funding for veterans seeking psychedelic treatments in countries where they are legal. VETS primarily serves Special Operations veterans, given the severity of TBI-related issues among members of this community.  

Similar to the HHP program, VETS ensures participants are committed to the healing process through rigorous preparation and positive lifestyle changes. Although VETS connects veterans to several psychedelic treatment options, most veterans choose Ibogaine and 5-Meo-DMT at well-vetted treatment centers outside the US.

Why Ibogaine and 5-meo-DMT?

There is a growing body of evidence that Ibogaine is extremely effective for healing TBI in from veterans experiences. Thus, it is the obvious choice given that most program participants are struggling with TBI-related issues. Although Ibogaine is highly effective, it is an exhausting experience. Therefore, it is followed by a beautiful and uplifting session with 5-Meo-DMT. 

A Brief Look at Ibogaine and 5-Meo-DMT Treatment

An Ibogaine treatment session is approximately 12 hours and is guided by a therapist in a clinical setting. The substance induces a “dream-like trance” with powerful psychedelic visuals, loud unusual sounds, and other sensations that are difficult to describe. 

It is a challenging experience as one processes traumas that are buried in the subconscious. At the same time, many experience a “defragging” of the brain. Many report that they can perceive their brain being “repaired” and “rewired”. Although the Ibogaine session is a profound healing experience, it can be a challenging and tiring process. Thus, 5-Meo-DMT provides an uplifting counterbalance to the Ibogaine session.

The 5-Meo-DMT (a.k.a. “The God Molecule”) session lasts 15 – 30 minutes; however, the experience is often perceived as timeless. While different for everyone, it is typically reported as an elevating and spiritual experience. 

Total System Reset

The vast majority of program participants experience the same miraculous results reported by Marcus. They return home ready to live a healthy, productive, and purpose-driven life. In addition, Amber has noted that most program participants report the same sentiment after their treatment sessions:

  • “My brain works again.”
  • “It was like a death and a rebirth.”
  • “It was like being in the presence of God.”
  • “We’re all connected.”
  • “It’s all about love.”

The overarching result for VETS grant recipients is a “total system reset”. It is a turning point, but sustaining this new direction requires a commitment to well-being. All VETS grant recipients demonstrate consistent follow-through with integration coaching, positive lifestyle changes, and maintaining community connection. 

Tune-in as Amber and Marcus discuss the VETS program and the “Nuclear Option” on the Field Tripping podcast

Kadima Neuropsychiatry Institute

David Feifel, M.D., Ph.D. is a warm and compassionate psychiatrist/neurobiologist who explores advanced treatments for psychiatric conditions. In 2008, Dr. Feifel pioneered the first ketamine treatment program in the world while serving as Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). He found that ketamine could consistently bring relief to patients with severe depression. 

Although Dr. Feifel treats patients from the general population, he has also been treating veterans with PTSD for the past 10 years. The San Diego VA Hospital routinely referred their most severe cases to Dr. Feifel for treatment. Dr. Feifel would administer ketamine to these patients, and they would experience immediate relief from the weight of depression and suicidal ideation. 

In 2017, Dr. Feifel resigned from UCSD and established Kadima Neuropsychiatry Institute (Kadima) in La Jolla in order to more effectively administer advanced therapies. Among these therapies is ketamine treatment. Kadima continues to be the choice for veterans in the San Diego area who are seeking ketamine treatment for relief from symptoms associated with severe PTSD. 

Why Ketamine?

Ketamine is legal in the US. It can be administered by a physician and is becoming more available with the emergence of boutique ketamine clinics. Although ketamine has been used as an anesthetic for decades, it is now known that lower doses induce a “psychedelic-like” state with powerful therapeutic qualities. As such, this psychedelic-like state provides immediate relief for repetitive negative thought patterns. 

Ketamine also immediately disrupts suicidal ideation that plagues many veterans’ experience with PTSD. Thus, ketamine is a potent and proven lifesaver. Many of Dr. Feifel’s patients have stated “this is keeping me alive” when reflecting on the efficacy of their ketamine treatments.

Another quality of ketamine is the potential for helping those who must avoid the classical psychedelics. Ayahuasca, Ibogaine, and the like are not recommended for individuals with heart conditions and high blood pressure. In addition, classical psychedelics must be avoided by those who struggle with psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. However, Dr. Feifel asserts that ketamine may be an option for patients with these conditions, when managed by a knowledgeable provider.

The Ketamine Experience at Kadima 

Ketamine treatment at Kadima is administered with the support of a compassionate medical staff. Prior to the actual treatment session, Dr. Feifel spends time with the patient to cultivate an intentional path toward well-being. 

The setting is comfortable and quiet. The patient has their own room, sits in a cozy recliner, and wears noise-canceling headphones that play curated music. Once the patient is comfortable, ketamine is administered via intramuscular injection. Shortly thereafter the patient enters a psychedelic-like state for approximately 90 minutes. Although different for everyone, most patients report a powerful feeling of connection with the entire universe. It is common for them to report the experience as infinite, timeless, all encompassing, and filled with love. 

It is in this state that veterans can revisit their traumatic experiences, but without feeling threatened. Dr. Feifel likens the experience to swimming with sharks, but from within the safe confines of a shark cage. 

Perspective Shift 

In addition to saving lives, this treatment is helping these veterans rediscover the joys of living. Ketamine enables the veteran to reframe their experiences. Traumas shift from events that define their existence to just being events that happened in the greater context of the entire universe. It is this perspective shift that allows them to move beyond the trauma.

Long Term Maintenance 

Although a single ketamine treatment can have a powerful therapeutic effect, its relief tends to be temporary. At Kadima, veterans with severe PTSD and suicidal ideation start with two treatments per week for eight weeks. Ketamine effectiveness varies from patient to patient. Some patients regain a sense of sustained well-being after a single treatment; whereas some patients require ongoing treatment for an extended period. 

The typical “integration” component of psychedelic therapies for veterans program is a bit different at ketamine clinics like Kadima. In this case, the patient is under the care of a supportive psychiatrist throughout the treatment period. The patient is not accountable for maintaining wellness practices in order to receive ketamine treatments. However, it is still advised that one adopts healthy habits and commits to long-term well-being.

Ketamine Safety

Although ketamine is available as a party drug; this substance should NOT be self-administered. Ketamine should ONLY be utilized in a clinical setting and under a physician’s care.  

If you are a veteran struggling with PTSD and are seeking ketamine treatment, it is essential to choose a clinic that provides the necessary support for your condition. Tune-in to the Delic Radio podcast interview with Dr. Feifel. In this episode, Dr. Feifel provides insights that are helpful for selecting a ketamine clinic.

Critical Elements for Successful Psychedelic Treatment 

Veterans have experienced remarkable results overcoming PTSD and TBI through various psychedelic treatments. However, psychedelic healing is a comprehensive process that must be approached with great care. The following are the most critical elements a veteran should consider when seeking psychedelic treatment. 

Guidance

Partnering with a skilled practitioner or organization will increase the likelihood of a successful psychedelic treatment path. They will guide the process, and ensure safety, care, and diligence. As demonstrated above, a practitioner can take the form of a shaman, a psychotherapist, or a physician in a clinical setting. Additional pathways will emerge as substances are legalized in the US.  

Ownership

The veteran must take ownership of their well-being. This is an extreme challenge for those who have been stuck in the VA medical system. The years of talk therapy, prescription medications, and hoping for a successful outcome can be a soul-breaking experience. The right psychedelic practitioner or organization will help the veteran reclaim ownership over their health and guide them toward the light at the end of the tunnel. Remember, your well-being and your life is yours to own.

Relationships and Family Support

It is critical to surround oneself with people who elevate and enrich your life. Likewise, it is beneficial to let toxic relationships float away. However, it is now clear that spouse and family support are the most significant factor of successful outcomes for veterans who choose the psychedelic path. Thus, the family must be open to learning about psychedelic plant medicine’s healing capacity and is willing to support the veteran who chooses this path.  

The Way Out of the Tunnel

Psychedelic treatments are the future of veteran mental healthcare, and the organizations mentioned above are leading this transformation. Psychedelics are safe for most individuals when administered by skilled practitioners in an appropriate setting. These substances are helping veterans find their way out of the darkness associated with PTSD and TBI. If you are a veteran considering psychedelics, take comfort in knowing that others have gone before you and that they are waiting for you by that light at the end of the tunnel.

2 thoughts on “The Veterans’ Experience: Psychedelic Treatments for PTSD”

  1. Avatar

    Ayahuasca saved my life. Over two years ago I returned from my fourth deployment to Iraq and Syria. I was having a lot of trouble sleeping, eating, and doing daily tasks. I never had problems adjusting after previous deployments. I tried therapy but I was never able to identify what was bothering me so much. With no hope for the future I became suicidal.
    While I was deployed I had a friend who always wanted me to try ayahuasca. I decided to give it a shot. If it didn’t work I could always come back to the states and blow my brains out. I had nothing to lose. It completely changed my life. After my first ceremony I realized clear as day that I was suffering from identity crisis. You see I was in the initial invasion to Iraq then had to go back to the same place 15 years later. We searched houses not knowing what we were looking for. I didn’t understand what we were fighting for and it all became so obvious. I didn’t believe in the mission or fight anymore. I’d been in the military my whole life and all I ever knew was “kill the enemy.” I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. Ayahuasca help me understand who I was and what was missing. If you’re a veteran considering trying it please go for it. It will change your life if you let it. Thank you plant medicine!

  2. Reality Sandwich

    @ Al, we can’t thank you enough for sharing your story and experiences! We’re so glad you were able to find healing in plant medicine. Sending love.

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