Texas Mulls Psychedelic Treatments to Combat Veteran Suicide Epidemic

Some veterans who took psychedelic drugs after finding no relief from prescribed medications say it changed their lives.

Paratroopers walk as they prepare equipment and load an aircraft at Fort Bragg, N.C., last year. (Spc. Hubert Delany III/U.S. Army via AP, File)

(CN) — When Andrew Marr left the military in 2015, he no longer felt like the person he was before service. A former college athlete and self-described “warrior,” he suffered from a range of new health issues, including frequent panic attacks.

Veterans Affairs doctors put him on more than a dozen medications. Marr said he saw “zero benefit.”

“I was of no value to my family, myself or anyone around me,” he said in an interview.

The VA labeled him “100% disabled.” He says he improved as he weaned himself off prescriptions, but he worried about unresolved psychological issues. Hearing reports of veterans medicating with psychedelics, he started researching the topic.

In 2016, while on a trip to San Diego, Marr tried 5-MeO-DMT, a federally illegal psychedelic. “It was the most profound experience of my life,” he said. He found a sense of closure around painful moments, including the death of a good friend and fellow veteran.

Spurred on by accounts like these, the Texas Legislature this year is looking at whether psychedelic drugs could provide relief to other veterans. A new bill that sailed through a Texas House vote last week aims to study the issue. It now heads to the state Senate with bipartisan support.

The bill would set up a first-of-its-kind clinical trial on the effects of psilocybin, the compound found in psychedelic mushrooms, on veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It would also review the effectiveness of other controlled drugs, including MDMA and ketamine.

Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved just two drugs — Prozac and Zoloft — for the treatment of PTSD. But many veterans complain the treatments leave them feeling numb or “zombified” — and even with the prescriptions, many continue to suffer from mood swings, depression and substance abuse.

Around 20 veterans kill themselves every day, said Alex Dominguez, a Democratic lawmaker from South Texas and the main sponsor of the bill. More than 100,000 have died by suicide since 2001, when the War on Terror began.

“This is a two-decade-long war,” Dominguez said in an interview. “There’s a generational loss we’re going to have if we don’t find new and innovative ways of addressing this problem.”

Before joining the Texas House in 2019, Dominguez worked as a prosecutor. In court, he often saw the same veterans “being charged with the same offenses.”

Some were arrested for drug crimes or DUIs as they looked for ways to self-medicate. Others experienced bouts of violent behavior. The steady stream of criminal charges was “really bogging down not just our court system, but people’s lives,” Dominguez said.

Dominguez started exploring the research around psychedelics and trauma. He soon found studies — including a recent one out of Ireland — showing promising results for health issues like depression when psychedelic drugs were combined with therapy sessions.

“Research shows that psychedelics seem to restart the brain,” Dominguez said. He stressed that drugs like psilocybin were not a “silver bullet” but hoped they could help veterans move past trauma.

In conservative Texas, lawmakers have long been cautious about easing rules on federally controlled drugs. During the last legislative session in 2019, they ultimately declined to expand the Texas Compassionate Use Act, the state’s limited version of a medical-marijuana program, to cover veterans with PTSD.

This time could be different. Dominguez’s bill has gained support among both parties and overwhelmingly passed the state House last Thursday with a 134-12 vote. It’s also attracted unlikely supporters, including former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who said in a news conference last month that psychedelic therapies “could save lives.”

“We have in our hands a way to positively affect our future,” Perry said at the news conference, urging lawmakers to “loudly and proudly share with the world what Texas is doing for its veterans.”

A U.S. Marine carries a sand bag during a reinforcement of the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq, last year. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Kyle C. Talbot via AP)

When psychedelics first entered the public consciousness in the 1950s and 60s, early studies offered encouraging signs they could help improve mental health. But as the hippie subculture took off, that initial research gave way to news stories and anecdotes about irresponsible drug use.

Public perception soured on psychedelics, and in 1971 Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act. The law classified a range of psychedelics, including psilocybin, as having a “high potential for abuse” and no medical benefit.

In recent years, psychologists are once again taking a fresh look at such chemicals. After a decades-long lull in research, the number of papers referencing psilocybin started to climb again in the 2000s and 2010s, according to data gathered by the Beckley Foundation, a U.K.-based drug-reform nonprofit.

More studies, including the one from Ireland, have added to academic interest. By 2019, the FDA had classified psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy,” indicating a willingness of federal regulators to reevaluate their stance on the drug.

Nowadays, a growing number of researchers are warming to the idea of treating ailments like PTSD with psychedelics.

Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai in New York, often works with veterans. When she first heard about psychedelic treatments, “My first feeling was, ‘How could that possibly be a good idea?,’” she said.

Her opinion has since shifted — the result, she says, of promising new research in the field and a sense that conventional medicine hasn’t led to “game-changing treatment for our veterans.” She called Dominguez’s bill “tremendous” and “impactful” but cautioned that more research was still needed.

“You have to stay neutral,” Yehuda said. “You have to let the data sweep you off your feet.”

Lynnette Averill, a psychiatry professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, also frequently works with veterans. She said she’s been interested in finding alternative treatments for PTSD since she was around 3 years old, when her father — a veteran — took his life. Suicides, Averill says, cause a ripple effects of harm throughout families and communities.

“The impact is not just on the individual struggling with those symptoms,” she said. “My mother and I — and I would [add] a lot of my dad’s family and friends — really struggled with a lot of guilt.”

Growing up in the 1980s, Averill says she heard stories from before she was born about her mother and father using psychedelics to self-medicate. “They were not taking drugs to get high,” she said. “They were looking at these drugs as a means of coping with some really awful experiences.”

When she began researching conditions like PTSD, those stories fueled her hope that psychedelic drugs could “work significantly more robustly” than conventional drugs like Prozac. “There’s certainly a great deal of research around [issues like] depression and end-of-life anxiety,” she said. But for psilocybin at least, “in terms of PTSD, there haven’t been any studies to date.”

If the Texas psilocybin research program takes off, Averill will likely be one of the people to lead it. After she learned about Dominguez’s bill, she reached out to the lawmaker.

In the version passed last week, Texas Health and Human Services would be directed to work with the Baylor College of Medicine to conduct a trial on the “therapeutic efficacy of using psilocybin” for treatment-resistant PTSD. They would also review current literature on the safety and efficacy of MDMA and ketamine.

At a Texas House Public Health Committee hearing in April, Averill made a pitch to lawmakers on why they should support and fund such a trial.

“This is not only [about] saving lives,” she told the committee, “but helping to build a foundation from which people can have a life that they truly want to live.”

Also present at the hearing were veterans who struggled with PTSD and other trauma. Marcus Capone, a veteran Navy seal, told the committee he never used drugs and “didn’t associate with those who did.” But after struggling with depression and mood problems, he said his life was changed by receiving psychedelic-based therapy in Mexico — in his case, using ibogaine.

His wife, Amber, described how their family life had “spiraled dangerously out of control” as Capone fought “the war against the invisible wounds of traumatic-brain injury and post-traumatic stress.”

Trying psychedelics was a “last-ditch effort to save him and our family,” she said. She stressed she was a “lifelong Christian and conservative.”

Next up was Marr, who shared a similar story. He tried conventional treatments, but they made things worse, he said. “I was told there was no coming back from the symptoms I was enduring.” Psychedelics, he said, “allowed me to revisit and release things from my past.” They gave him “fulfillment and validation” after “a lifetime of service.”

Stories like those helped sway state representatives in Texas — but as the 2021 legislative session winds down, it remains to be seen if state senators will feel the same.

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