Treating PTSD: Maybe It's Time for Another Look at Our Options

Just about the time I was working to develop and lobby for the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Bill, which resulted in the creation of the Vet Centers (now numbering over 300 nationwide), Dr. Charles Figley published his book Stress Disorders Among Vietnam Veterans (1978). An internationally recognized traumatologist, Figley has devoted his career to the study and treatment of trauma. That's over 35 years of experience, much of it with veterans.

Dr. Figley was instrumental in the classification of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In a conversation about the new modalities to treat PTSD, he mentioned a recent series of editorials in The New York Times calling for the legalization of marijuana.

According to the series, the case against marijuana goes back to the 1930s. It was not science-based then, and, judging by our current laws and sentencing, we haven't altered our basic thinking about it. Figley agrees. New evidence has been largely dismissed or ignored. Marijuana was criminalized over 40 years ago, yet estimates are that over 30 million people are using it today. That's not much headway. Meanwhile, although alcohol and tobacco are known to be more addictive and certainly more costly in terms of "collateral damage," they remain in wide use.

Figley thinks we should reevaluate medical marijuana for use in treating trauma like PTSD, especially in the face of veterans being overprescribed pharmaceuticals and psychotropic drugs, often very powerful ones, and sometimes several at a time, to treat the symptoms of PTSD. For the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), a quick prescription can be an easy answer to the onslaught of returning veterans suffering from PTSD. It moves vets through the system, but at a high cost to their overall health, and with a limited chance for real recovery, management and transition back into civilian life.

I've talked here before about other modalities to treat PTSD. They include breathing techniques, acupressure and acupuncture, yoga, exercise, eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), thought-field therapy (TFT), cognitive and group therapy, hobbies and volunteering, to name a few. Figley thinks it's time to reconsider what medical marijuana could do to alleviate the suffering of PTSD. Vets who have used it would doubtless agree.

Here at the National Veterans Foundation (NVF), we're focused on helping our veterans heal from visible and invisible wounds. We hear from vets on our Lifeline for Vets about overmedication for PTSD. An open discussion and more information could lead to treatments more efficacious and compassionate than relying on pharmaceuticals. PTSD is a basic human response to war. Maybe there's a more humane way to treat it.