Should Our Veterans Be Taking LSD?

Jennifer Grey considers whether expecting our veterans to self-medicate is an acceptable way to treat them – and also asks whether use of controversial hallucinogens could be helpful in their recovery.

While no less essential to our overall wellbeing, mental health has been traditionally put on the backburner in conversations about health and happiness. Fortunately, the past few years have seen this steadily shift. The topic of mental health and wellbeing is increasingly broached in conversations about overall health – and in all industry sectors and areas of life.

The military needs better mental health support

For the military, this conversation inevitably includes PTSD and other related trauma disorders. However, as a new report by specialist lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp and military charity Veterans Lifeline recently revealed, 72% of military charities claim the government and Ministry of Defence currently aren’t doing enough to support veterans’ mental health.

This is despite the fact that almost a quarter (17%) of people who have seen active military service report symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression, grief and anger. This lack of support may be why so many veterans are turning to self-medication, and using psychedelic drugs to help them cope with the trauma.

Unfortunately, there have been very few clinical trials run on the long-term effects of these drugs on peoples’ mental health. Thus, it raises the question: should our veterans be taking LSD, magic mushrooms and other drugs to cope, and should we be doing more to help? The following is a breakdown of some of the research covering potential risks and rewards.

Yes, anecdotal evidence supports it

News articles on the subject often point to success stories by patients who have tried psychedelics as part of their mental health therapy. Patients report success in treating PTSD using magic mushrooms and LSD under specialist supervision or using psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) to treat chronic depression. Small-scale studies and trials show the promise of MDMA and reduced PTSD symptoms, psilocybin and reduced depression symptoms and reduced symptoms of anxiety. However, almost all clinical trials have been of too small a scale to make generalisations.

But there isn’t enough clinical evidence

A 2016 medical review on psychedelics concluded that, while there is some evidence of psychedelic drugs having a positive therapeutic effect, there isn’t a large enough body of well-designed clinical studies to back this up. The report also stated that it is difficult to measure the “before-and-after” affects of using drugs to treat mental health disorders. After all, a healthy person with no mental health issues is unlikely to take a casual brain scan which could’ve been used as a comparison if and when they begin to exhibit mental health issues.

In 2019, a systemic review of the use of psychedelics in a group setting made similar conclusions. They noted that, while there’s vast and variable clinical trials about psychedelics, more research needs to be done to get a full and accurate picture. They also pointed out that all the studies they reviewed had methodological shortcomings, making it difficult to draw real conclusions about the efficacy of psychedelics in group therapy.

And, in 2020, another scientific review found that clinical trials do support the use of MDMA to treat PTSD, but more research needs to done around LSD and ayahuasca. They did note that the limited research currently available is promising, and encouraged investigations to continue.

Psychadelic therapy could lead to other issues too

An article on the subject also pointed out that patients who undergo psychedelic therapy are put in an incredibly vulnerable position. They note that a combination of the power imbalance between patient and therapist and the potential of MDMA to increase feelings of sexual arousal could lend itself to abusive situations.

All said, the use of psychedelic drugs in treating mental health issues such as PTSD and depression does have potential. Exploring this potential is all the more important when you consider that the report by Bolt Burdon Kemp and Veterans Lifeline found that 44% of military charities note that they receive cases of trauma they are not equipped to handle. This follows reports of an “epidemic” of suicides among veterans. Therefore, it’s imperative that an effective solution is found quickly if we are to properly support the servicemen and servicewomen who dedicate their lives to serving their country.