Struggling Canadian war veterans are turning to psychedelics to recover from military trauma

A soldier kneeling in front of the grave of a fallen soldier. A Canadian flag in the background.

Growing tired of exceptionally high wait times to access mental health services and to get their benefits, veterans are increasingly turning to psychedelic drug-assisted therapies to cope and to recover from military trauma.

Dr. Dominique Morisano, Professor at the University of Toronto, believes that many veterans are not getting the care that they need.

"As a result, many are desperately seeking alternate strategies and solutions to manage the symptoms that they're feeling," she says.

Moreover, mainstream therapies sometimes don't work for all individuals. Coupled with longer wait times, veterans are searching for options that can help them—psychedelics.

Veteran claims: More than a 20-week wait

On the Veteran Affairs Canada website, the processing time for a disability benefit for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is seven weeks on average. For multiple conditions, the average time goes up to 22 weeks.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay agreed Tuesday that wait times at the department are too long, but insisted the Liberal government has hired hundreds of temporary staff to process claims.

MacAulay's average also don't include the time that veterans are forced to wait for a reassessment or appeal if their initial claim is rejected.

The government's stated target for processing 80 per cent of claims is 16 weeks.

Walter Callaghan, PhD candidate in Medical Anthropology at the University of Toronto and a veteran who served in the Canadian Armed Forces, says it took Veteran Affairs Canada more than four years to process his injury claims a few years ago.

It took four and a half years for them to acknowledge that I had suffered a back injury. It took them just over five years before they acknowledged that I had any mental health issues. Veteran Affairs has always been plight with problems on how to provide benefits to disabled veterans.Walter Callaghan, PhD candidate, Medical Anthropology, University of Toronto

However, he says that in the "weirdest twist", the government organization is actually at its best currently.

"This whole '14-week' controversy? It was never a thing to begin with—completely aspirational," he says. "What we're seeing now is the best we've ever seen. It used to take years, now at least there's a shorter time limit."

Another report released by the auditor general of Canada in May revealed that the federal government was falling short of ensuring that disabled veterans, Mounties and vulnerable Canadians were receiving the benefits they need.

The report showed that veterans are being forced to wait too long to receive benefits to support their physical and mental health and that the management by Veterans Affairs Canada was ineffective.

Veterans were waiting almost 40 weeks for a decision on their first application for disability benefits, when the department's average processing time for most other applications was just 16 weeks.

The growing popularity of psychedelics

Psychedelics are a class of psychoactive substances that can alter perception and mood and affect numerous cognitive processes.

These include lysergic acid diethylamide (famously known as LSD), methylene dioxin methamphetamine (or, popularly known as MDMA), psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms), ketamine, and ayahuasca brew.

Psychedelic therapy is emerging as a breakthrough treatment and has shown proven results in treating conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance use disorders. Experts believe that these drugs can help by providing veterans with emotional distance, new perspectives, experiences of joy, peace, among other neurological benefits.

"They basically help provide a supportive environment for people to process unresolved trauma and work with the person to move forward with their lives," Morisano says.

With this in mind, many organizations and researchers have turned towards revolutionizing this drug to help veteran populations.

One such organization is Heroic Hearts Project.

Founded in the USA by Army Ranger Jesse Gould after he came home from Afghanistan in 2014 after his third appointment, he started this nonprofit organization pioneering psychedelic therapies for military veterans.

"Whatever people think, psychedelics are coming—whether they like it or not. The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no way we’re putting it back. The results are just too good," Gould said in a Psychedelics for Veterans webinar on Thursday.

"Moreover, this should actually allow us to rethink the current systems that have actually failed. It's not just a question of psilocybin replacing SSRIs. It's a question of why did we reach here in the first place?"

Gould has been spearheading the acceptance of ayahuasca and offers retreats to veterans in various countries who are interested in pursuing alternate psychedelic treatment options. Gould himself is known for his battle with PTSD and his recovery through ayahuasca therapy.

With a lot of global success and recent support, Gould now has chapters in the UK and Canada.

With the success of Heroic Hearts, many more nonprofit organizations and communities have come up that promote the use of psychedelic-assisted therapy to help veterans heal. Some of them include VETS, Veterans Walk & Talk, and Veterans of War.

What about the scientific evidence?

Many landmark studies lately have shown the efficacy of psychedelic drugs in treating conditions like anxiety, PTSD, and substance abuse.

A recent review paper published by a group of scientists showed the efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapy in managing PTSD.

The review looked at the use of MDMA, cannabinoids, Ketamine, and classic psychedelics and concluded that psychedelic substances "provide prospects for a revolutionary method of treating PTSD".

A 2019 study published in The Annals of Clinical Psychiatry tracked the efficacy of treating 30 U.S. military veterans with combat-related PTSD with six one-hour long ketamine infusions. Participants self-reported changes in symptoms of depression, PTSD and substance use prior to the first and last infusion. Over the six sessions, symptoms of depression were nearly halved and symptoms of PTSD also dropped significantly.

Another study published by Dr. Rick Doblin in 2021 found that MDMA paired with counselling brought marked relief to patients with severe PTSD.

This month, Health Canada approved the phase two trials in a Vancouver-based pharmaceutical company, APEX, which is evaluating the safety and efficacy of using psilocybin to treat depression in veterans with PTSD.

APEX CEO Tyler Powell wrote in a statement that this move will help the company to focus on helping veteran patients with PTSD and depression.

"Veterans are already self-medicating with micro-doses of unregulated psilocybin products without knowing the potency and safety of the product they are consuming. Our goal is to expand access to pharmaceutical grade drug products through regulated systems, providing transparency and support for patients in need," he said.

After decades of demonization, psychedelic drugs are on the cusp of entering mainstream psychiatry, setting the stage for a huge setback for a field that has seen few pharmacological advancements for the treatment of mental disorders and addiction.

Many doctors, scientists and veterans believe that the psychedelic revolution is coming. Top universities are racing to set up psychedelic research centres and investors are pouring in millions of dollars into a pack of start-ups.

"I think at this point there is enough evidence out there to support the efficacy of these therapies for this particular condition," Morisano says.

However, scientists do agree that more research and scientific studies are needed to get approvals from the government for use of psychoactive compounds in therapy. The fact that these drugs are heavily restricted by the government restricts access for many scientists and slows down their research.

Either way, Canada is joining other countries and is beginning to allow access to psychedelic drugs as treatment options for PTSD.

What are the treatment options available in Canada and how can you access them?

According to Aaron Victory, the Director of Heroic Hearts Project in the Canada Division, there are three pathways to accessing psychedelic drugs.

"In Canada, you can either participate in a clinical trial, get a Section 56 exemption, or get access through Special Access Programs (SAP)," he says. However, these programs are extremely limited and saved for the most severe cases.

Even though there have been only a handful clinical trials, the research and access are both expanding.

Many private clinics today offer ketamine-assisted psychotherapy. For instance, a private clinic operated by Field Trip Health, a chain of clinics in the U.S. and Canada, opened up in New Brunswick recently to help treat PTSD with ketamine. They have locations all over Canada.

Ketamine has been approved by Health Canada as an anesthetic. It's safe and has had a strong effect in terms of treating depression and suicidal tendencies.

Recently this year, the Special Access Program, regulated by Health Canada, that allows people to access certain medications that are not yet available to public, made amendments to add certain psychedelic therapies to the programs.

This means physicians can now request access to treatments, including MDMA- and psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy, on behalf of people who have serious, treatment-resistant, or life-threatening conditions.

People can also request LSD and DMT among other highly regulated drugs.

If you or a loved one is a Veteran, former RCMP member, family or caregiver and in need of support, contact the VAC Assistance Service. It is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at no cost. Call toll-free at 1-800-268-7708.