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Research into psychedelic-assisted therapy for veterans ‘a moral imperative’: Senators Richards and Boisvenu

A silhouette of a soldier kneeling before a gun, boots and helmet against a blue sky.

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It is easy — too easy — to dismiss the therapeutic value of psychedelic drugs.

Whether it’s outrage at the notion of taxpayers funding recreational drug use or sardonic witticisms about hippie medicine, too many people are prepared to overlook treatment that has shown great promise in helping veterans heal from debilitating mental illnesses acquired through their service to Canada.

It’s time to change those attitudes and — to quote the title of the latest report from the Senate’s Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs — The Time is Now. Our subcommittee undertook a sober examination of the issue and concluded that a large-scale research program on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is a moral imperative.

Read our report and you’ll agree — it’s no laughing matter.

Kelsie Sheren served as an artillery gunner in Afghanistan. After she was exposed to intense fighting and experienced the death of a friend, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Conventional medications proved useless; she was medically released in 2011.

“I was suicidal, angry, hurting and lost,” she told our subcommittee. “I was 21 years old and on 11 different pharmaceutical drugs. Nothing was working.”

“The words that [Veterans Affairs Canada] said rang in my ears for years: ‘You’ll never work again.’”

As a last resort, she tried psychedelic-assisted therapy. It required international travel — funded by a non-profit organization — until she was finally able to take part in a Canadian clinical trial.

In her case, the results were profound.

“Psychedelic-assisted therapy is the only reason I can be a present mother, wife and value to society,” she told us.

“Psychedelic therapy is the only reason I am alive.”

Conventional PTSD treatment is a slow and painful process that is too often ineffective.

Retired Colonel Rakesh Jetly, the former chief psychiatrist of the Canadian Armed Forces, told us how the patient is required to relive traumatic events in the therapy room — “again and again and again until you desensitize and habituate.” 

It’s gruelling. The drop-out rate is high and, in Colonel Jetly’s view, it fails to take into account the guilt that some veterans feel about the actions they are required to take on the battlefield.

“If you’re [feeling] guilty, talking about it […] actually might make it worse,” he said.

In fact, former senator and retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire described the mental injuries some soldiers receive as “moral injuries.” He illustrated his point with the story of a sniper who had not hugged his own children in the five years he’d been home because, in combat, he had been ordered to “take out” children being used as suicide bombers.

“Everything that they live by has been attacked,” Gen. Dallaire said.

These sorts of injuries are in a class by themselves and shed light on why it is so difficult to get successful results from conventional treatment.

At the same time, it is important not to overstate the case for psychedelic-assisted therapy. One doctor warned against turning too quickly to these substances given the small amount of data available and the fact that the long-term effects of psychedelics like ecstasy, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and ketamine remain poorly understood.

The status quo, however, is a death sentence.

Veterans die by suicide much more often than any other group of Canadians: the suicide rate is 50% higher for male veterans than the general population — 250% higher for male veterans under 25 — and 200% higher for female veterans.

Each one of these people chose to give themselves — body and soul — to protect us and our values.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy may help them. A large-scale research program could provide live-saving data.

We owe it to our veterans to explore every possibility.

The Honourable David Richards is chair of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and represents New Brunswick in the Senate. The Honourable Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu is deputy chair of the subcommittee and represents the La Salle division of Quebec.

This article appeared in the November 22, 2023 edition of The Hill Times.

It is easy — too easy — to dismiss the therapeutic value of psychedelic drugs.

Whether it’s outrage at the notion of taxpayers funding recreational drug use or sardonic witticisms about hippie medicine, too many people are prepared to overlook treatment that has shown great promise in helping veterans heal from debilitating mental illnesses acquired through their service to Canada.

It’s time to change those attitudes and — to quote the title of the latest report from the Senate’s Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs — The Time is Now. Our subcommittee undertook a sober examination of the issue and concluded that a large-scale research program on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is a moral imperative.

Read our report and you’ll agree — it’s no laughing matter.

Kelsie Sheren served as an artillery gunner in Afghanistan. After she was exposed to intense fighting and experienced the death of a friend, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Conventional medications proved useless; she was medically released in 2011.

“I was suicidal, angry, hurting and lost,” she told our subcommittee. “I was 21 years old and on 11 different pharmaceutical drugs. Nothing was working.”

“The words that [Veterans Affairs Canada] said rang in my ears for years: ‘You’ll never work again.’”

As a last resort, she tried psychedelic-assisted therapy. It required international travel — funded by a non-profit organization — until she was finally able to take part in a Canadian clinical trial.

In her case, the results were profound.

“Psychedelic-assisted therapy is the only reason I can be a present mother, wife and value to society,” she told us.

“Psychedelic therapy is the only reason I am alive.”

Conventional PTSD treatment is a slow and painful process that is too often ineffective.

Retired Colonel Rakesh Jetly, the former chief psychiatrist of the Canadian Armed Forces, told us how the patient is required to relive traumatic events in the therapy room — “again and again and again until you desensitize and habituate.” 

It’s gruelling. The drop-out rate is high and, in Colonel Jetly’s view, it fails to take into account the guilt that some veterans feel about the actions they are required to take on the battlefield.

“If you’re [feeling] guilty, talking about it […] actually might make it worse,” he said.

In fact, former senator and retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire described the mental injuries some soldiers receive as “moral injuries.” He illustrated his point with the story of a sniper who had not hugged his own children in the five years he’d been home because, in combat, he had been ordered to “take out” children being used as suicide bombers.

“Everything that they live by has been attacked,” Gen. Dallaire said.

These sorts of injuries are in a class by themselves and shed light on why it is so difficult to get successful results from conventional treatment.

At the same time, it is important not to overstate the case for psychedelic-assisted therapy. One doctor warned against turning too quickly to these substances given the small amount of data available and the fact that the long-term effects of psychedelics like ecstasy, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and ketamine remain poorly understood.

The status quo, however, is a death sentence.

Veterans die by suicide much more often than any other group of Canadians: the suicide rate is 50% higher for male veterans than the general population — 250% higher for male veterans under 25 — and 200% higher for female veterans.

Each one of these people chose to give themselves — body and soul — to protect us and our values.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy may help them. A large-scale research program could provide live-saving data.

We owe it to our veterans to explore every possibility.

The Honourable David Richards is chair of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and represents New Brunswick in the Senate. The Honourable Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu is deputy chair of the subcommittee and represents the La Salle division of Quebec.

This article appeared in the November 22, 2023 edition of The Hill Times.

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