United States special operations forces (SOF) are the special forces of the Department of Defense. These service members are involved in various types of missions ranging from combat and counterterrorism operations to hostage rescue and humanitarian aid. Today veterans from the Special Operations community are once again on the front lines — this time of the mental health epidemic as they share the message of the healing power of psychedelic medicine.
The Veterans Mental Health Leadership Coalition is working on this all-important issue. Consisting of 17 Veteran-led organizations, the coalition is committed to ending the Veteran suicide epidemic by any means necessary.
The United States suffers from a mental health epidemic. In the United States, 87 million or roughly 1 in 4 Americans report experiencing mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders. In 2018, 1.7 million veterans reported mental health issues ranging from depression, to debilitating anxiety, and PTSD. Suicide rates increased 30% between 2000–2018. On average there are 130 suicides per day, 22 of which are veterans. New studies show the veteran’s suicide rate may be double federal estimates: 44 suicides per day. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people and the 12th leading cause of death among Americans. 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide in 2020.
The mental health crisis is greatly affecting our children. In the fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics along with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health5. 40% of teens reported to the CDC that they feel “persistently sad or hopeless,” and 1 in 5 saying they have contemplated suicide, according to the results of a survey published in March. These problems are becoming more common and are affecting more people than ever before. The issue has become so serious, the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense are making public commitments to tackle this monumental challenge:
“Mental health affects all of us, which is why I named tackling the mental health crisis a core pillar of my Unity Agenda. As I outlined in my State of the Union address last March, we can and must do more to transform how we address mental health in America,“ said Joe Biden while announcing a new nationwide mental health strategy to address the surging mental health crisis.
The good news is there is hope: natural medicines like magic mushrooms can treat depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicidal ideation. Clinically published research conducted by John Hopkins University showed in a national survey of over 190,000 U.S. adults, lifetime use of certain psychedelic drugs was associated with a 19 percent reduced likelihood of psychological distress within the past month, a 14 percent reduced likelihood of suicidal thinking within the past year, a 29 percent reduced likelihood of suicide planning within the past year and a 36 percent reduced likelihood of attempting suicide within the past year. These results were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
“These could be breakthrough medical treatments that we’ve been ignoring for the past 30 years,” says Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins and one of the world’s most published scientists on the human effects of psychedelics.
The Psychedelic Renaissance is sweeping across the western world as researchers, investors, activists, and politicians work to provide legal access to psychedelic medicine, which can lead to healing the mental health epidemic in the west. The idea that psychedelic medicine could be a panacea to the world’s mental health epidemic is buoyed by the FDA’s fast-tracking clinical research trials for psychedelics such as Psilocybin and MDMA.
Designated as breakthrough therapies by the FDA, a breakthrough therapy is for a drug that treats a serious or life-threatening condition and preliminary clinical evidence indicates that the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement on a clinically significant endpoint(s) over available therapies. Psychedelics show potential for treating a myriad of illnesses: depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, migraines, and more.
Other esteemed research institutions like Yale, UC Berkeley, The Ohio State University, and Imperial College London have published clinical research demonstrating the transformational healing power of psychedelic medicine.
Psychedelic Policy Reform
Veterans have become unlikely lobbyists in the push to legalize psychedelic medicine. In 2021, a veteran-led coalition of non-profits: VETS (veterans exploring treatment solutions), the Warrior Angels Foundation, Heroic Hearts Project, and SOAA (the Special Operations Association of America) led the charge for Texas House Bill 1802, a bill that provided funding for the state of Texas to facilitate a clinical study of how psilocybin — found in “magic mushrooms” — helps treat veterans with mental health problems. A bipartisan effort, HB 1802 passed successfully and showed the greatness of America, that a small group of committed veterans and citizens can change the world.
“Mental health is health – period. It’s on all of us to end the stigma of asking for help and support when we or someone we know is feeling distressed, anxious, or isolated. Reaching out is a marker of strength and resilience. We will not stop working to address the root causes of this issue,” said Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin.
Reason for Hope, a veteran-led psychedelic advocacy organization, recently helped lead the charge for Connecticut House Bill 5396, the nation’s first pilot program to offer MDMA and psilocybin-assisted treatment for behavioral health conditions. The bill passed and went into effect in July 2022.
“The unfortunate reality of the mental health crisis highlights the limitations of effective pharmacologic treatments and therapies in our toolbox. Psychedelic-assisted therapies offer relief and healing for veterans suffering,” retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Martin R. Steele, Chief Executive Officer of Reason for Hope, and head of the recently formed Veteran Mental Health Leadership Coalition stated to the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The Veterans Mental Health Leadership Coalition is now working to create change at a federal level. The Federal government is starting to listen to the research and embrace psychedelic medicine and clinical research trials. Ketamine therapy, the only legal psychedelic medication, was given expanded access to treat veterans’ suffering mental health issues through the Veterans Administration’s healthcare programs. In 2021, John Hopkins received a 4 million dollar NIH grant to research psychedelics for smoking addiction, the first federal grant issued in 50 years.
Veterans like Jesse Gould, retired Army Ranger and Founder of the Heroic Hearts Project are active across the country spreading the good word about psychedelic medicine:
“I got out of the military in 2014. I had done a number of deployments in Afghanistan. But what I found is I started having some mental health issues that I really didn’t expect, nor could I really understand. I just knew I wasn’t living up to my full capacity. I had this weight of being affected by things like anxiety and depression. I tried to go to the Department of Veteran Affairs to do therapy, but what became pretty clear pretty quick was the VA was just very much dogmatic about the medication prescription model. There’s a time and place for everything, but I knew a lot of people where the medications didn’t address the problem, just sort of muted the problem and then had all sorts of other side effects. So I did as much due diligence as possible, found a place in Peru and kind of took a leap of faith.”
“I went to this Ayahuasca ceremony, which was very challenging but profound and healing. I overcame many of my issues and started seeing my life differently. This experience led me to found the Heroic Hearts Project, to educate and connect other veterans in similar spots to these modalities” – Jesse Gould
Marcus Capone, retired Navy Seal and Co-Founder of VETS, is another anchor of the movement, “I served 13 years in special operations as a US Navy SEAL with many combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m proud to serve this nation and there’s nothing I changed about my time and service. What does need to change, however, is access to effective life-saving treatments for addressing the invisible wounds, as so many of our nation’s veterans are facing today. I was medically retired and I thought, like the rest of us, life is going to be okay at that point. And that’s when I really started spiraling. I was very impulsive. I was angry. I was angry at the world. I was depressed. It basically couldn’t get out of bed at all. I was isolated. The frustration came to a point where I thought It would be better if I just went away. Having tried every available opportunity from multiple treatment centers to a whole host of other treatment modalities, I can say unequivocally that psychedelic-assisted therapy saved my life. Psychedelic therapy is the next major breakthrough in mental health care. No one needs or deserves this intervention more than our veterans.”
Andrew Marr, a retired Green Beret and Co-Founder of the Warrior Angels Foundation has given testimony in the Texas and Pennsylvania legislatures: “My background is in army special forces. I’m retired from the special forces. My brother and I Co-Founded the Warrior Angels Foundation. I’m also the Vice President of the Special Operations Association of America. When I was medically discharged I was given medication and told to take these for the rest of my life to maintain some semblance of normalcy.”
“In 2015 I was able to experience the healing power of psychedelic therapy. Today I am symptom and medication free. I feel as good if not better than my pre-injury status. That experience is not special to me but is normal to all the veterans we are helping through our organization and with our partners. This comes down to freedom of consciousness. We are talking about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Medical freedom and health freedom to be able to use the plants that grow on the earth that have been used for thousands of years for the betterment of all at a fraction of the costs with little to no side effects. Our own institutions call these medicines a breakthrough. Right now we need to redefine the future where all Americans can access the tools that heal us and reconnect us with us. ” – Andrew Marr
In November 2022, two House lawmakers formed the Congressional Psychedelics Advancing Clinical Treatments (PACT) caucus, the nation’s first psychedelic medicine caucus. The caucus is co-chaired by California Democratic Representative Lou Correa and Representative Jack Bergman, a Republican from Michigan who is also a retired lieutenant general with the United States Marine Corps.
“Having served our Nation as a member of the United States military and in Congress, I’ve seen the destruction post-traumatic stress disorder can cause on my fellow veterans and their families,” Bergman said in a statement, as reported by the Washington Examiner. “Our job is to find solutions to these problems, and if psychedelic-assisted therapy can help treat or even fully cure someone of their PTSD, we need to take a closer look at these potentially life-saving therapies.”
Not to be outdone, members of the Senate are crossing the aisle and partnering to champion the cause of mental health. In November 2022, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the Breakthrough Therapies Act, a bill that would reclassify MDMA and psilocybin.
“We urge Congress to swiftly pass the Breakthrough Therapies Act, which responsibly reduces the barriers to research and limited access of potentially life-saving treatments like MDMA- and psilocybin-assisted therapy,” said Martin R. Steele. “Veterans should not be forced (nor should anyone else) to leave the country – at great expense – to access breakthrough therapies that can be safely provided and further studied in real-world settings here at home.”
“We believe the Breakthrough Therapies Act is the tip of the spear in our fight to ensure that Special Operations Veterans have access to the most advanced and effective medical treatments in the world,” said Daniel Elkins, Special Operations Association of America Founder and Member of the Moral Compass Federation. “The Breakthrough Therapies Act will ensure Special Operations Forces receive the care they deserve from the country they fought for.”
Psychedelic medicine research shows that psychedelics can help heal our Veterans and potentially American citizens from mental health disorders and simultaneously provide us with mystical states of consciousness. From the front lines to the lines of politics, Veterans from the special operations community are upholding their oaths to the Constitution and the People of the United States by doing the right thing, by using their voice as citizens to create change not just for Veterans but for all Americans.