In the years since 9/11, just under 3 million military service members have deployed overseas—mostly to Iraq and Afghanistan—with many more in active reserves. Recent data shows us that one out of every five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experience either major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even more glaring is the alarming rate of suicidality in the veteran community—the estimated stat is 20 suicides a day.
While mental health professionals and researchers continue to wade through potential solutions for these staggering mental health outcomes, some vets have decided to take treatment into their own hands. In a new documentary film, From Shock to Awe, director Luc Côté and Janine Sagert, a clinical psychologist, follow combat vets and their families as they heal from post-traumatic stress disorder with the assistance of psychedelics and cannabis.
Two of the US Army vets featured in the film—Airborne MP Mike Cooley, and Infantry Matt Kahl—both now retired, found that the conventional treatment from the doctors at the Veterans Administration provided more damage than respite. As Colorado residents with access to medical marijuana, they started using weed to better manage their PTSD symptoms.
The film captures several of Kahl’s and Cooley’s most mundane yet intimate moments: getting their children ready for school in the morning or driving around town running errands, and it’s painfully obvious to viewers how intensely they struggle with these activities. Things that might not seem like a big deal—the noise of passing cars, for example—are jarring and even triggering for them.
When they’re shown smoking cannabis, however, the calming and mood-lifting effects seem remarkable and instantaneous. As the film progresses, though, so does their self-treatment. They find that their PTSD symptoms—which ranged from insomnia and crippling mood swings to constantly being on guard, even just sitting around at home—are better managed with the shamanic brew ayahuasca, a plant medicine that contains the psychedelic DMT that was discovered by people indigenous to the amazon rainforest in South America.
To clarify, Kahl and Cooley began taking ayahuasca because symptom relief wasn't enough. They saw potential for a deeper transformation—an opportunity to address the underlying trauma that drove their symptoms. “I was so numb to everything going on,” Cooley tells me, “but with the healing these [alternative] meds brought, we now have our lives ahead of us, to build the love in our family and to help anyone to better understand these awe-inspiring wonders.”
Instead of heading below the equator to trek through the jungle, they boarded a plane to central Florida where the Soul Quest Church operates quasi-legal ceremonies using ayahuasca as their religious sacrament.
“Vets over the years have been learning from each other about how to use cannabis or plant-based medicine as an alternative to psychiatric medication,” says Sue Sisley, an Arizona-based psychiatrist who has discussed the potential benefits of cannabis in veterans with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD at the film's events and panels. She's currently conducting a first-of-its-kind randomized, placebo-controlled, triple-blind pilot study on the topic.
“What’s portrayed in the movie is impressive but not everyone has that kind of transformation,” she tells me. “For a lot of people, it’s a treacherous or harrowing experience that may even worsen their PTSD. But that’s exactly why we need a variety of treatment options.” Sisley tells me that while these drugs show potential, she’d never just advocate for the self-treatment of cannabis or ayahausca by vets.
Still, a full year after taping for film, Kahl and Cooley maintain that trading prescription meds for cannabis and ayahuasca has been a game-changer. “I can choose to grow or choose to ignore. These [alternative] medicines show that it’s a daily if not moment-by-moment choice that we have,” Kahl says.
There are Veterans Day screenings of From Shock to Awe in New York City, Oakland, San Francisco, Austin, Los Angeles, and 17 other cities and the film’s producers will continue to organize smaller screenings in the coming weeks. (We’ll update this story with any upcoming information on streaming options.)
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