Heroic Hearts: Psychedelics for Veterans
Grace Blest-Hopley, Research Director at Heroic Hearts Project, tells us about the charity’s mission to bring psychedelic therapies to veterans
Lauren Robertson | | Interview
The Heroic Hearts Project is on a mission to bring psychedelic treatment options to veterans in both the US and UK. Currently, their main focus is on the South American brew, ayahuasca, because of anecdotal evidence of success in treating PTSD symptoms. Besides their work to connect veterans with ayahuasca retreat centers, Heroic Hearts is also involved in researching the science behind psychedelics and their use as a mental health treatment. We spoke with Grace Blest-Hopley, Research Director at Heroic Hearts Project and Postdoctoral Researcher at King’s College London, UK, to find out more.
How and why was the Heroic Hearts Project founded?
In recent years, veteran mental health has finally started getting the recognition it desperately needed. Increased awareness and reduced stigma has meant more veterans are speaking out, and it’s taking less time for them to get help. And yet, the veteran cohort still has some of the worst outcomes for PTSD treatment. Many cycle through numerous overstretched and oversubscribed health services and charitable schemes in an often desperate quest to get some form of healing. The aim of Heroic Hearts comes from asking one simple question: What can we do to better help our veterans find effective treatments that enable them to not just survive but thrive?
Specifically, the project was founded by a US Ranger veteran following his own transformation after using the psychedelic ayahuasca. Based on this experience, he set up the charity to help other veterans access similar therapies. An almost identical story of healing was repeated by a Parachute Regiment veteran in the UK, who partnered with the US charity to set up Heroic Hearts UK. Heroic Hearts in the US and UK now aim to: offer opportunities to veterans to access psychedelic retreats and treatments; conduct valuable research into the effectiveness of medicinal psychedelic use; and use our platform to inform and campaign around the use of psychedelics.
What is the scientific basis behind using psychedelics to treat PTSD?
The theory behind psychedelic use for PTSD treatment is based on collective evidence that psychedelics can increase synaptic plasticity, reduce amygdala reactivity during emotional processing, and increase insightfulness and introspection – all domains that play important roles in the biology and psychology of PTSD. Although formal investigations into the effects of treatments such as ayahuasca and psilocybin on PTSD – particularly in a veteran population – are currently lacking, anecdotal evidence is compelling and shows the beneficial effects these treatments can have in individuals who have otherwise been seen as treatment-resistant.
Tell us about some of the work you are doing for veterans…
Psychedelic medicines have been used in healing ceremonies for millennia. Only now are these practices being shown to be beneficial for a range of psychiatric disorders though investigations in modern clinical settings. We are also starting to learn how the naturalistic or ritualistic settings for the use of such substances can have an impact on how effective, safe, and meaningful these experiences are. Based on this knowledge, the Heroic Hearts programs now span a number of different sites, substances, and ceremony types. Our research looks at how the nature of the ceremony bears significance on the experience, helping us to optimize the outcomes and inform future programs. The use of group therapy is also important to us on our retreats. We see this as particularly beneficial in veterans, who conduct almost all their military training and service in tight-knit groups. Conducting our retreats in this way helps to establish increased feelings of physical and mental safety, as well as offering the invaluable connectivity of having shared lived experience. These groups then form the basis of a support network moving forward, allowing them to continue to integrate their experiences, offer support, and show comradery.
Given that much of your work is based around retreats, have you been able to make much progress the last few years?
COVID-19 saw a pause in all Heroic Hearts activities. Thankfully, we were able to restart some of our retreats from mid-2021. Heroic Hearts have now helped dozens of groups of veterans travel to places like Peru and take part in ayahuasca healing ceremonies, and we’ve also been able to take veterans through established clinics in Mexico using ibogaine treatment protocols – another naturally occurring psychoactive substance. The last twelve months has seen us establish protocols for our own retreats in Jamaica and the Netherlands, using psilocybin to treat veterans who have a history of head trauma alongside psychological disturbances. These psilocybin retreats will be accompanied by research investigating the psychological, cognitive, and neuro-functional changes in participating veterans. Such a research opportunity will add invaluable evidence to the proposed potential of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin – especially those used in retreat settings.
What is in the future for Heroic Hearts and this kind of research?
Heroic Hearts are charitable associations, therefore all the work we do to help veterans, including our research projects, is reliant on the support of our donors and sponsors. We hope that with enough support we will be able to run several psilocybin retreats for both US and UK veterans in the next year, and also publish our findings from our studies with our research partners at Imperial College London. The psychedelic research field is now seeing a long-awaited uptake in research projects, and public and political trust in such medicines is increasing. However, the bureaucracy around setting up studies involving psychedelics means immense determination and financial support is required. Currently, though there is progress towards using such medicines more widely for psychiatric disorders, this is greatly hindered by a number of barriers preventing robust clinical research on these restricted substances.
Psychedelics offer a vital alternative for those veterans who have tried all current methods available to them without success. We aim to continue working to get as many veterans through psychedelic retreat programs as possible, as well as to conduct meaningful research to enhance understanding, but while the laws around the use of such substances remain as they are, we are undoubtedly hindered in our progress. Having fought for their countries and through the battles of mental health, our veterans should not now be fighting to get access to healing. Only by increasing the number of trials on psychedelics will we see safe and effective treatments realized.
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