After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, some veterans have found themselves fighting an invisible war inside their own minds. In search of relief, many have gravitated toward non-FDA-approved psychedelic therapies and are abandoning prescription medications.
“[Veterans] are in pain and they know that the pharmaceutical cocktail isn’t going to work,” decorated Marine veteran Sgt. Jenna Lombardo-Grosso said. “You only need to call up one of your friends to find out so-and-so committed suicide.”
Lombardo-Grosso said during her eight years of service, she saw extensive suffering, including friends die and lose limbs in a mortar attack in Iraq. That attack contributed to her own mild traumatic brain injury. She was also diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which she mostly attributes to military and childhood sexual trauma.
Years of prescription medication and traditional therapy didn’t help much, she said.
“Before, when a trigger came up, it would be devastating,” Lombardo-Grosso said. “Sometimes, I would vomit.”
Lombardo-Grosso left the service in 2012, but it wasn’t until this year that she found relief — following just a couple of days of psychedelic therapy in March.
“It’s like I got a software update and there’s more processing power now,” she said. “I have the ability to deal with [past trauma] in healthier ways.”
Lombardo-Grosso went to a retreat in Mexico run by The Mission Within, an organization that founder Dr. Martin Polanco says has provided psychedelic therapy to more than 700 veterans since 2017. The retreats are conducted out of the country because the compounds used are not legal as medical treatments in the United States.
“It’s unfortunate that patients have to travel to Mexico or other countries to get this treatment,” Polanco said.
Polanco said he knows more evidence is needed before the FDA will greenlight psychedelic therapies and that he’s eager to support research.
“We believe it is important to document scientifically what we have been seeing anecdotally,” he said.
Measuring psychedelics’ effectiveness
The Mission Within will be involved in studies UT Austin’s Dell Medical School is gearing up to launch at its Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy.
The center was created in 2021 by Greg Fonzo and Dr. Charles Nemeroff. After almost a year of planning, they are now poised to find answers to questions about the effectiveness of psychedelics on various mental health conditions. Nemeroff said the studies will evaluate who psychedelic treatment is good for, how often it should be administered and at what doses.
The center’s first study will focus on the diagnosis of “prolonged grief.”
“It’s sort of this black hole of misery in which they get stuck in this particular way of thinking,” Fonzo said.