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Momentum builds for psychedelic therapies for troops, vets

Mark Satter, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

In 2004, Mike Gemignani enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school. A forward observer, he directed artillery units and Apache attack helicopters to their targets during his two tours in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division.

He eventually left the military, went to college and settled into a job. But a slow trickle of anxiety and depression soon followed.

He sought help through the Department of Veterans Affairs, where counselors prescribed him “fistfuls” of medication, including opioids and more drugs to counter their side effects. The drugs didn’t help his depression, and for days at a time he would do nothing, immobilized by the illness.

Gemignani’s story is not uncommon for those who served in the military. But now, after years of effort, momentum is building in Congress to explore a new path for servicemembers and veterans struggling with psychological illnesses: psychedelics.

Current legislative proposals include studies of the effectiveness of using psychedelics to treat PTSD among active-duty servicemembers and veterans, reflecting a small but significant shift among lawmakers’ attitudes toward therapeutic use of the drugs.

But psychedelic therapy was not an option when Gemignani turned to the VA, and his mental status continued to deteriorate.

 

“I got to the point where I was sitting in my basement office with a pistol in my hand,” Gemignani said.

Gemignani’s situation changed when his wife found a website for the organization Veterans of War, a nonprofit that facilitates six-month programs for veterans who, having exhausted their other options, travel overseas in an effort to treat their depression, anxiety and PTSD with psychedelics.

The program includes months of coaching, therapy and community-building, but is centered around a weeklong trip, typically to the jungles of Peru or Costa Rica, where participants take ayahuasca, a powerful psychoactive brew traditionally used by indigenous cultures that, among other psychedelics, is gaining popularity in the U.S. as a way to treat psychological issues without turning to opioids.

But psychedelic substances like ayahuasca and psilocybin — commonly referred to as magic mushrooms — are illegal in the U.S., forcing interested Americans to seek them out in more permissive nations overseas, or find them on the black market.

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