Ignoring the Veteran Problem a Billion Dollars at a Time
This week, the Trump White House proposed a $87 billion 2020 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which is the primary care provider for the majority of this country’s military veterans. This is a boost by $6.5 billion, or 7.5 percent, with a stated focus on reducing veteran suicides.
By any outside metric, it is clear that the veteran community is going through a mental health crisis, with record levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addiction, and suicide. The veteran rates of suicide are possibly the most troubling with more veterans dying by their own hand than in combat — by a factor of at least 10.
Although the exact number is hard to nail down through the available data, it is clear that veterans are committing suicide at a much higher rate than the general population, with some estimates as high as 20 suicides every day. The picture is bleak.
This increase in budget and the recent creation of a veteran mental health task force are necessary steps in the right direction for bringing attention to this issue. However, this renewed attention begs one important question: How has one of the biggest PTSD treatment breakthroughs in history not received even a single dollar of support from the US government?
In August of 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA) granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation to MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. This rare designation indicates that the FDA believes this therapy demonstrates substantial improvement over existing therapies. Most commonly known as the main ingredient in the party drug ecstasy, MDMA has been shown to offer significant relief for sufferers of PTSD in clinical use trials conducted over the past several years.
This breakthrough designation is of no surprise, as 68% of the participants of the Phase II studies had a complete remission of PTSD-related symptoms. Each of these participants had chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD, and had suffered from this condition for an average of 17.8 years. By comparison, the Department of Veteran Affairs currently has less than a 30% success rate for treating PTSD.
These important studies have been spearheaded by a nonprofit organization out of California called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Despite this therapy’s tremendous promise, not a single dollar of government funding has gone to support this research.
The final stage trials are now underway, which means MDMA could potentially be prescribable in a therapeutic setting as early as 2021. This last stage of research that is currently being conducted costs an estimated $25 million with the entirety of the funding coming from private donations. To put this into perspective, the cost of this groundbreaking research is less than .03% of the current proposed budget for the VA.
Another substance with a lot of therapeutic potential, which is also being used by thousands of veterans, is called Cannabidiol (CBD) — which is a non-psychoactive component of cannabis plants (in other words, consumption of CBD does not cause an individual to get high). Despite overwhelming evidence of its use to relieve pain, anxiety, and insomnia, the VA will not offer any guidance or financial support in connection with this substance… which leaves veterans to figure out solutions on their own.
Unfortunately, the VA and the government as a whole have been silent when it comes to pursuing treatments that have tremendous potential for addressing the current mental health issues faced by the veteran community. Instead, this task has been taken up by private organizations like MAPS and various veteran nonprofits that have blossomed in the past decade. This is a testament to the veteran and American spirit, but an embarrassment to the largest healthcare provider in the US.
We need the Department of Veterans Affairs to be the loudest voice advocating for veterans, but this is rarely the case. We need it to be the one government body that will turn over every stone to solve the problems facing the veteran community, but this is never the case.
The substances behind these treatments have bad reputations due to people abusing them recreationally. But if our goal is to help those who have sacrificed for this country, the least we can do is to momentarily suspend our stigmas and push for more research into these clearly viable treatments. Veterans deserve every opportunity to heal.
This has to be a bipartisan issue. Every politician on both sides of the aisle — especially those bidding for the presidency — need to be asked this same question: Why are we not doing everything in our power to help this nation’s military veterans?
Jesse Gould is a former Army Ranger who founded the nonprofit organization Heroic Hearts Project, which connects military veterans to effective psychedelic-based therapy programs. After finding very little help through the VA, Jesse went on a quest to discover his own solutions to his depression and anxiety which he found in the Amazon jungle in a psychedelic drink called ayahausca. He has since been working with doctors and researchers to raise awareness in the veteran community about these promising treatment options that are currently not getting the proper attention or research.
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