Editor’s Note: SOFREP invites our readers to submit editorials for publication. Today, we bring you this essay by Dominique L. Plewes who is the founder and Chairperson of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) Foundation regarding veterans and their physical and emotional health. We share her concern that as the Global War on Terror moves into the shadow of a mostly clandestine conflict without large deployed units overseas, America’s commitment to caring for its servicemembers and veterans may wane.
Last week on Veterans Day, Americans had an opportunity to reflect on the end of the war in Afghanistan and show their appreciation for the sacrifice of the men and women who fought the nation’s battles. Veterans and servicemembers, along with their families, grapple with a variety of emotions and unseen trauma. While some of these traumas are being discoursed, one threat to servicemembers receives far less attention: the use of dangerous, experimental treatments for mental illnesses.
Veterans and the general public have recently been more outspoken on mental health topics, possibly due to the rise in alarming trends within the military and veteran community or because of shortfalls in the Department of Defense’s (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) responses to these wounds becoming more apparent. This is especially true for active duty and veterans of special operations units. They have borne a significant burden over the last 20 years of war. Because of their mental scars and the lack of institutional support, some have turned in desperation to unproven, experimental treatment methods that have only compounded their problems.
Last year, the suicide rate for the active force was at an all-time high, drastically increasing since 2015. Among veterans, suicide rates are approximately 2.5 times that of the general population. From 2017 to 2018, the suicide rate within U.S. Special Operations Command tripled. Active duty and veterans are also twice as likely to have PTSD as civilians, and “more than half of veterans who need mental health treatments don’t receive them.”
As these problems have grown, the military health care system has not kept up. It is unable to respond quickly and precisely to active duty and veteran mental health needs, driving some to turn to unproven treatments. Generally, there is still a large cultural stigma related to mental health issues. Servicemembers fear that seeking help will negatively affect their careers or that they risk reprisal from peers or leadership. For active-duty members that do seek treatment at military facilities, the right resources are often lacking. Long-term mental health recovery is a personal process that requires time and trust. This is hard to sustain when military members, which include medical providers, consistently move. While there are other resources, such as military and family life counselors or chaplains, they are often over-extended or are not trained mental health professionals.
The issues within the military mental health ecosystem have created gaps that members of the private sector have begun to fill. While taking a trip to a Mexican ibogaine clinic may be unheard of for some, it is just one of many experimental treatments that private organizations, outside of DoD or VA purview, have offered to members of the special operations community attempting to deal with their mental health struggles. Along with ibogaine, options have included other psychedelics, including ayahuasca and psilocybin (i.e., magic mushrooms), along with brain stimulations (i.e., brain zapping). These “treatments” supposedly cure depression, addiction, and/or PTSD, but are unregulated and amount to uncontrolled experiments on servicemembers. Their side-effects include permanent psychosis, severe anxiety, problems with military regulations, and fractured families. While research into many of these treatments is currently underway, more is needed before they are proven to be reliably effective.
Servicemembers, veterans, and the public should be careful with these unproven trends. They are reminiscent of failed mental health experiments seen throughout history. Lobotomies were frequently used throughout the 1940s, and Metrazol (a form of shock therapy) was on the market for nearly 50 years until the FDA revoked approval in 1982. These practices are now acknowledged as inhumane and unsafe, but they were lauded for their effectiveness at the time by advocates who shared awe-inspiring anecdotes and success stories. Similarly, things like “brain zapping” and psychedelics are extolled as successful by some, while lacking the necessary supportive research, putting those who put their faith in these efforts at serious risk.
Fortunately, there are a variety of ways in which to address this issue. First, the DoD and VA must continue to aggressively address the stigma within the active force against seeking mental health. This can start with training, leadership, and education and continue with an independent study to understand current attitudes toward mental health services in the active force.
In addition to addressing stigma, military medicine and VA healthcare professionals must assess how they support servicemembers and families. Signed in 2018, the VA MISSION Act was intended to improve the quality of veteran care by providing ways to go to non-VA facilities. But the VA is stopping veterans from going to outside providers even when VA doctors say that a non-VA facility is best for their patient. This access to privatized mental health care in coordination with the VA could be the resource needed to help veterans, but a review is needed to understand how the VA is implementing this legislation. In the absence of help, private organizations and foundations have stepped in to provide specialized mental health resources to both warriors and their families – although the vast majority are legitimate, there is always the danger that a servicemember in a vulnerable state will be misled as they search for solutions. The DoD and VA should partner with successful private organizations and foundations, as they are able to more rapidly respond to issues with a tailored and targeted approach.
While the war on terror has officially come to a close, veterans who lived to see the end still face their own war. With many now back on U.S. soil, the American people have an opportunity to show servicemembers the gratitude they deserve by ensuring our government delivers the mental health services needed to heal the invisible wounds of war.
Dominique L. Plewes is the founder and chairperson of Special Operations Forces (SOF) Support Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing specialized mental health programs for returned servicemembers, as well as educating Americans on the purposes and uses of our special operations forces.