That’s when a friend suggested ayahuasca.
Carlisle knew nothing about psychedelics then but was willing to give it a shot. That first experience, he said, “flipped everything” with his mental health. “I haven’t had any suicidal ideation since that point,” he added. The experience took place in the United States under the care of a Native American church, which was much safer than traveling to South America to take part in increasingly dangerous psychedelic tourism.
Carlisle’s been interested in the healing potential of psychedelics ever since.
Ayahuasca is a concentrated mind-altering brew used primarily by South American Indigenous societies in spiritual ceremonies. A 2019 study published in the medical journal Current Neuropharmacology describes the effects of ayahuasca on the brain as enabling “amplified introspection and problem-solving related to past and current life stressors, and for powerful envisioning and strategizing of solutions for a more hopeful future.”
In addition to shedding his suicidal thoughts, Carlisle said the experience launched him on a new path to becoming a licensed mental health counselor. In 2024, he plans to enroll in a Master of Science program in clinical mental health counseling at Colorado’s Naropa University—an accredited Buddhist-inspired university that offers a psychedelic-assisted therapies certificate.
Psychedelics produce unusual and compelling experiences and throw one into a weighty world of introspection. With an intensely meaningful and personal experience under their belts, veterans like Carlisle are potential living proof of efficacy of novel therapies that involve psychedelic compounds.
After decades of prohibition, scientists have embarked on a renaissance and rediscovery of psychedelic research in recent years. Chemical compounds such as ketamine, LSD and psilocybin—the active component in psychedelic mushrooms—have been associated with recreational drug use but are now being investigated, and showing great potential, for their therapeutic properties. However, one psychedelic drug—methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA—is so effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder that, in 2017, the Food and Drug Administration granted breakthrough status and fast-tracked clinical trials.
MDMA, the key chemical in the illegal drug ecstasy, was found to significantly reduce PTSD symptoms for veterans and first responders when paired with psychotherapy. A 2021 study by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) found that two-thirds of those who received the MDMA-assisted treatment no longer qualified for PTSD. Just 32% of participants in the placebo group experienced the same outcome.
Researchers from MAPS Public Benefit Corp. (MAPS PBC)—the arm of MAPS focused on developing new psychedelic treatments—presented their encouraging research to DAV members at the 2023 DAV and Auxiliary National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Jonathan Lubecky, a Marine and Army veteran who underwent MDMA-assisted therapy in 2017, also shared his experience of struggle and hope.
“I’m one of the fortunate people on this planet who can say I’ve been healed of PTSD longer than I’ve actually had it,” said Lubecky, an Iraq War veteran who became a DAV life member at the convention.
He took MDMA just three times across eight separate therapy sessions under the care of mental health providers. Advocates hope to have full FDA approval for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in 2024.
However, the substance does not come without risks. MDMA is known to increase stress on the heart, which may be a barrier to any future treatments and is something researchers weigh when deciding who to admit in the study. Also, this research is always under the care of, and in concert with, medical professionals. Recognizing the potential adverse health effects, including death when not taken properly, the MDMA protocol is never offered as a take-home dose.
Since undergoing the treatment protocol, Lubecky has worked with MAPS PBC to advance psychedelic therapy understanding on Capitol Hill, where veterans leverage their backgrounds to reduce stigmas and change minds.
Juliana Mercer is one of those veterans.
She served 15 years in the Marine Corps, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. She worked at the naval hospital in San Diego between two combat deployments, assisting wounded Marines in navigating post-injury life. The military suicide rate was increasing, and Mercer was set on connecting returning and suffering warfighters with new resources and therapies.
Mercer left no stone unturned.
“We were trying everything from meaningful employment to equine or puppy therapy, yoga and meditation, everything you could think of that could help,” she said. “It was frustrating. Compound that with now almost 20 years of our country, myself, and my friends being at war.
“I found myself in a place where I no longer felt I had a purpose,” said Mercer.
After leaving the Marine Corps, she traveled to Costa Rica where, like Carlisle, she underwent a therapeutic experience with ayahuasca.
“It opened me up to a world that I had never heard of but also to the possibility and the potential of healing,” said Mercer.
Since then, she has focused on speaking to Congress to research and advance psychedelic treatments, specifically MDMA.
“Anybody that’s been involved in trying to solve the veteran suicide epidemic recognizes this as a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Mercer, who is director of veteran advocacy and public policy at Healing Breakthrough, an organization dedicated to expanding MDMA-assisted therapies. “Regardless of what side of the aisle they are on, [lawmakers are] getting behind it.”
A bipartisan veteran duo in Congress is doing just that. In November 2022, Reps. Jack Bergman of Michigan and Lou Correa of California formed the Psychedelics Advancing Clinical Treatments (PACT) Caucus, which aims to address the “national mental health crisis” through such science and research.
“Some people get fired up about the word ‘psychedelics,’ but the keyword is ‘assisted,’” said Bergman, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general and the highest-ranking military official to serve in Congress. “Psychedelic-assisted therapies are extremely promising.”
In July, Bergman attached an amendment to Department of Veterans Affairs appropriations legislation directing the department to conduct a large-scale study into psychedelics that have received FDA breakthrough status, like MDMA for PTSD and psilocybin for treating depression. It passed unanimously.
“For the men and women who have stepped up to defend us and have come back wounded in many different ways, it is our sacred obligation to ensure that we don’t leave behind any advancements in medical treatments that could benefit them,” said Bergman.
“This discovery, this breakthrough, is going to revolutionize how we treat mental health for veterans in this country,” added Correa. “How much money do we spend on treating veterans with medications that don’t work?”
“DAV has long committed to supporting research into new, safe and encouraging treatments and therapies for veterans,” said DAV National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “We should follow the science wherever it leads us and learn as much as possible to alleviate veterans’ wartime psychological wounds.”