Veterans helping veterans
How former military people
are banding together to combat PTSD.
By Brenden Maisonneuve
Going to war changes a person. The problem is, the veteran is often the only one who can see it, and that can make it difficult to rejoin the world in peace time.
The effect of combat on the mind and emotions has had many names: for example, shell shock in the First World War, and combat fatigue or war neuroses during the Second World War.
The name we use now is more clinical: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
For one in 10 Canadian soldiers who came home from Afghanistan, this shift in life is their reality. PTSD, for short can affect people in different ways. These effects are called indicators, and one of the challenges with the condition is treating the different indicators. Sleep disorder is just one example of an indicator, and can be a massive challenge for people dealing with PTSD. They could be suffering from nightmares or flashbacks that make them avoid sleep as much as possible – or to self-treat with alcohol or drugs.
The most common indicators are hyper-intensiveness and anger issues, says psychologist Ramona Gapp, who treats patients with PTSD.
‘It’s that agitation, mind racing, can’t turn the world off, kind of symptoms. It’s those same kind of symptoms that keep them up at night’
There is no overall cure for PTSD; you can only deal with the symptoms. And this makes treating the indicators like threading a needle. The problem with that is during the threading it’s not hard to cause a knot. Finding medications that work together and don’t make the symptoms worse can be a problem.
Medical marijuana may offer new hope for PTSD sufferers, says Timothy Baxter, clinic manager of Marijuana for Trauma Edmonton, an organization founded by Fabian Henry and Mike Southwell, Afghanistan veterans who suffer from PTSD.
“I started using cannabis to treat a lot of the anger I was having, when I came back from Afghanistan,” Baxter says. “Some of the anxiety issues I was having definitely were treated with cannabis, and then generally too as an uplifting anti-depressant to get me out of the house and make me feel motivated to do anything.”
Henry and Southwell discovered through personal use of medical marijuana that maybe it could help, at least as a substitute for alcohol. They knew other veterans were struggling and set out to help. They started with veterans meetings in a Fredericton coffee house in 2013, and from there Marijuana for Trauma was born.
“Before there was even a business it was just veterans helping veterans. Guys going door to door checking in on their buddies making sure they weren’t going to kill themselves.” Baxter says.
The organization helps military veterans and first responders who are suffering PTSD by referring them to counsellors, psychologists, physicians and naturopaths. Now, there are over 10 branches across the country. The one in Edmonton opened a year ago.
Before Marijuana for Trauma, the drug of choice for most veterans was alcohol, says Baxter.
‘You would just drink your problems. It was even a socially acceptable thing to say that you were going to get wasted and pass out and forget my fucking week’
Baxter’s road to MFT began with the Army, just like Henry and Southwell.
He was deployed to the war in Afghanistan. When he came back, he says, he was full of anger and anxiety and didn’t have any idea how to cope.
Alcohol wasn’t an option, he says, because he was taking courses toward a degree at MacEwan and couldn’t study drunk, or go to class hung over.
That’s when Baxter made the switch to cannabis. He began using it as an antidepressant. The angry veteran became a happy, relaxed guy. He could sleep without fear, and wake up without a headache.
He got involved with MFT after he graduated from MacEwan University. After his graduation he was working as a financial advisor. When he heard the clinic was coming to town he began volunteering. “I actually helped build the front of the clinic when there wasn’t really a budget for it yet” he says. When he learned the plans for the company he applied and it turned out to be a good fit.
Baxter says MFT isn’t a dispensary, and never presents marijuana as a miracle treatment that will end PTSD or solve all of its problems. The organization acts as a go-between that helps develop treatments that work for each person in need.
Each client must provide proof of his or her eligibility for a cannabis prescription. Then, they meet staff nurse and cannabinoid therapy educator Kristin Stefanec, who is the guru of the strains and treatment methods.
She puts each patient through the intake form and screening, which she describes as “more thorough than people want us to be.”
The reason for being so thorough is to gather all the information a doctor might need to devise treatment, and to gather information that can help Stefanec identify strains to treat specific indicators, such as depression, anxiety, nightmares and aggression.
In rare cases a patient will be denied. THC, the main active ingredient in pot can aggravate mental illness, such as schizophrenia.
Only when Stefanec and a doctor who works with the clinic sign off will a patient can get a prescription, which most will
fill through mail order.
The first step of the treatment doesn’t start with a big change in medication. The goal is to get the patient some rest by prescribing a strain of indica.
Indica is known by a nickname, “in-da-couch.” It earns this name because it is the type of marijuana that supposedly offers a “body high” rather than the “mind high” of a sativa strain. Indica helps to relax the mind and muscles so it has a calming effect. It also helps produce dopamine, which helps regulate emotions and control the brains pleasure centre. These strains also have a higher CBD content, which unlike THC, doesn’t carry psychoactive properties. Strains with higher CBD content are used to help patients sleep, reduce pain and inflammation, nausea, anxiety, and convulsions.
Stefanec says they want them to rest and sleep because it plays a huge role in the recovery of the patient.
‘What I tell guys too, is that if you’re not sleeping then everything else is going to be worse. So first and foremost let’s address that. Let’s get you in the couch with a hard-core indica and just crash you right out’
For the first 90 days, one gram of indica is typically the only prescribed treatment.
The other main group of Marijuana plant is Sativa.
The common thought is that sativa is the type of pot that gives the user a “mind high.” This is because of the chemical THC, which is more prominent in sativa. THC is known for its psychoactive properties and has been used to treat pain, lack of appetite, reducing aggression and to nausea or vomiting. While indica is what is prescribed initially, the Sativa strains can be effective too.
“When you absorb THC into the blood it binds to the CB1 and the CB2 receptors in the brain which releases anandamide, which is a molecule that gives the user a feeling of bliss. That’s really really great if you’re trying to love something or just be friendly with someone when you have that positive mindset, the cannabis gives you that,” Baxter says.
Stefanec says they don’t want to make any drastic changes to their routine or medications in the first 90 days.
“That’s the time for them to navigate their way and to find what works for them.”
She also said that they just want the patients to decompress and adjust to the treatment.
‘This is all about healing. You talk to someone, they can barely leave their house. Then they’re down here trying to shoot the shit with you after three weeks. It’s pretty awesome’
From there the treatment plan is tweaked to treat the specific indicator of PTSD with strains and different methods of ingestion, which allow users to avoid the harmful effects of smoking.
The method of ingestion purely depends on the need. For quick bursts of medication that are needed right away to treat anxiety, MFT suggests vaporizing, which delivers the medication in seconds or minutes through the lungs.
Edibles on the other hand can take up to an hour to kick in because the pot is absorbed slowly through the stomach and also is processed by the liver before offering relief. The pot can also be turned into an oil or butter for cooking or baking, or taken as a pill, which has the same long acting effect.
The slower release time is better suited to day day-to to-day use, and works best when the patient needs long acting relief, so the patient does not need to take multiple doses throughout the day.
A lot of the time Marijuana gets showcased as a blanket treatment or the “miracle” drug that could be used in every situation. However, that could not be further from the truth. One of the most impressive things about MFT is that they never try to sell you on that miracle.
“If you’re not going to do the work it’s not like cannabis is going to be a quick fix” Stefanec says. She doesn’t want to replace your medication, she wants to add to your treatment and use it in conjunction with counselling and other medications. The hope is to give a sense of normalcy back into the lives of the people with PTSD.
MFT doesn’t claim it will cure PTSD, but they want to tame it to the point that it is possible for someone to sit at the bar with friends, get back into a routine, and see new people without scanning for threats. The goal for MFT is to help our veterans and any other people who suffer from PTSD rejoin the world again. They want your old life to feel familiar, not foreign.
“It’s certainly not a cure,” says Baxter, “it’s still a crutch, we understand that, but it helps a lot.”