There are more than twenty million veterans in the United States. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: National Center for PTSD reports that an average of 12% of veterans has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. An estimated 30% of Vietnam veterans also suffer from the condition.
The program that transitions military personnel from active duty to civilian life does not necessarily screen veterans for mental health problems. The system relies on veterans to come forward and ask for help. Mental health stigmas and fear of ridicule or social reprisal lead many veterans to self-medicate or cope with PTSD symptoms independently. And unsuccessfully, to the detriment of their overall safety and well-being.
American veterans represent 13% of all national suicide deaths annually. Finding better therapeutic modalities for veterans is now a primary focus for the VA. In 2020, only 27 states are currently involved in the VA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Governor’s Challenge. The Presidents Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) was signed in June 2020 to provide more education and intervention resources.
Veterans who were dishonorably discharged (for charges including misdemeanor drug use) are not eligible to receive healthcare treatment and programs through Veteran’s Affairs. Reporting on suicide deaths reflects veterans receiving benefits from the VA. The annual rate of suicide or life-threatening self-harm by veterans may be much higher.
Veterans Suffer in Silence With Unresolved Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder is often a treatment-resistant mental health condition. The medical approach is a combination of talk-therapy combined with mood stabilizers, anti-anxiety, and anti-depressant medications.
A military veteran who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder may experience some or all of the following symptoms:
- Lack of appetite
- Obsessive appetite (binge eating)
- Substance abuse
- Muscle armoring
- Lethargy and persistent fatigue
- Low mood
- Suicidal ideation
- Severe depression
- Flashbacks or recurrent waking memory of the trauma(s)
The side-effects of many common psychotropic medications can be equal to or worse than the symptoms of PTSD. Another barrier to mental health treatment for veterans is addressing substance abuse. Many veterans may use alcohol or controlled substances to help ameliorate the debilitating symptoms. And they may avoid consulting with a physician because they fear the only effective coping mechanism they have (drugs or alcohol) will be taken away from them. Or that their substance abuse will somehow negate their veterans’ benefits unless they enter into a rehabilitation program.
PTSD Disrupts Health, Relationships, and Livelihood for Veterans
There is a tragic cost when moderate to severe mental health disorders are not addressed. Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder have a higher than average incidence of chronic diseases. In one study, veterans with PTSD had increased rates of diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, respiratory ailments like asthma, and chronic pain.
Because of mood disorders related to severe anxiety or depression, veterans with PTSD can struggle to find and retain employment. Financial stressors and irritability or lethargy also place additional strain on relationships for some veterans. Further reducing social supports.
Breakthrough Research Suggests Cannabis is a More Effective Therapy for PTSD
Many states have added post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying health conditions. And that is because of the increase in clinical studies that suggest cannabinoid therapies may provide the best results for veterans with PTSD.
- THC can provide effective and perhaps safer relief for chronic pain compared to prescription opioid medications. This can benefit veterans who experience a symptom called ‘muscle armoring.’
- THC can help improve symptoms of insomnia and may restore healthy sleep patterns.
- Certain strains of cannabis can be effective in managing anxiety symptoms.
Repressed traumatic memories cause many of the behavioral and mood disorders that veterans with PTSD experience. New clinical research suggests that activating CB1 and CB2 receptors can improve the consolidation and retrieval of memories. If this is true, it may help penetrate the suppressed traumatic memory and successfully resolve the trauma with psychiatric therapy.
Because cannabis remains a Schedule I prohibited substance, clinicians at VA hospitals cannot recommend medical cannabis for veterans in their care. However, in 2019, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs mentioned that VA providers could discuss medical cannabis as part of treatment planning. Participation in state medical marijuana programs does not affect the eligibility for VA benefits.
What is still contraband and prohibited for active-duty members may create breakthrough therapeutic results for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. And new hope.