Trump was praised for his supportive mention of right to try laws in his State of the Union Address. To be sure, this is surprising, especially coming from a “conservative” president. However, we should look closer at his entire speech and its impact on all those who deserve the right to try.
The Right to Try Belongs to Everyone
Addressing right to try laws, Trump said:
We also believe that patients with terminal conditions, terminal illness, should have access to experimental treatment immediately that could potentially save their lives. People who are terminally ill should not have to go from country to country to seek a cure. I want to give them a chance right here at home. It’s time for Congress to give these wonderful, incredible Americans the right to try.”
And the president is absolutely correct. Terminally ill patients should have the right to try experimental treatments that could potentially save their lives. But this right does not belong to them alone.
Mental illness inflicts tremendous suffering on its victims. However, it is not medically classified as being terminal. Yet, it is often deadly. Yet, these patients are not given the right to try, even under Trump’s proposed policies. For those suffering from severe depression or PTSD, suicide is often just one dark thought away. But these souls are told they must suffer lest they be thrown in jail for using something as “evil” as marijuana or psychedelics, both illegal in the eyes of the state.
Since several FDA-approved medications for anxiety and depression are available, mental ailments are seen as “treatable.” But as anyone who has ever seen a commercial for such medications has witnessed, “increased suicidal thoughts” are often a side effect of these types of drugs. And this doesn’t account for the other side effects that vastly decrease one’s quality of life such as increased weight gain, decreased sex drive, and often even a changing of taste for certain foods. Sure, these are not life-threatening ailments, but quality of life is important especially when experiencing an increase in suicidal thoughts.
But these considerations are made far worse when looking at some of the other comments made by Trump during the State of the Union.
The Emotional Costs of War
Trump spoke of building an even mightier military, saying:
In confronting these horrible dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict and unmatched power is the surest means to our true and great defense. For this reason, I am asking Congress to end the dangerous defense sequester and fully fund our great military.
This policy will not make us any safer. The “fully-funded” wars being waged around the world are only breeding blowback that makes the world a more dangerous place. And the Pentagon is already filled with bloated and wasteful spending. There is absolutely no need to further feed the beast.
And in addition to the financial cost of war, Trump fails to acknowledge the emotional cost of promoting a military agenda that would mean sending more individuals off to fight in distant lands, causing even more cases of PTSD.
Since 2009, more veterans have committed suicide than soldiers have died in combat. A primary culprit of this is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD has been called many things over, such as “shell shock,” “battle fatigue,” and even “war neurosis.”And because it has taken many forms as more information has been discovered, no one really knows how many veterans are suffering from it. It has, however, been estimated that between 11–20 out of every 100 veterans are suffering.
But these troubled souls are unable to get access to treatment that could potentially save their lives. Instead, those most in need of help are ushered through the disastrous Veterans Administration, where the only solution is to prescribe a cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs. In the beginning, it may start with just an antidepressant, but when the side-effects of that drug manifest themselves, another drug is given to correct the side-effects. And when the new drug brings on its own set of side-effects, an additional drug is added on. And so on and so forth. Iraq War veteran Nigel McCourry is one such veteran who was subjected to this regiment of prescription drugs and in the book “Changing Our Minds” stated: “It was like they were trying to give me a chemical lobotomy, it was not an acceptable alternative to just dealing with the PTSD.”
But dealing with PTSD is not as easy as it sounds. Anyone who has ever dealt with or knows someone who has dealt with PTSD knows it is not as simple as getting your feelings out. Sometimes just talking about experiences endured in war can trigger a patient and bring them to a state of such discomfort they can become a danger to themselves or others, sometimes even ending in suicide. And yet, PTSD — remember — is not technically a terminal illness.
But fortunately for McCourry, he was able to participate in a clinical study that allowed him the legal right to try psychedelic treatment, which completely changed his life for the better.
Psychedelics and Psychotherapy: One Veteran’s Story
After years of being demonized thanks to the War on Drugs, psychedelics are making a comeback. And unfortunately, the reason for this comeback is perpetual war.
After two Iraq wars and the Afghanistan War, America saw tremendous surges in PTSD cases. Between the years of 1999 and 2010, veteran suicides averaged 22 a day, or one every 65 minutes. That number has since decreased to about 20 suicides a day, which is hardly a level worth celebrating.
But these grim statistics forced the government to recognize the moral injuries inflicted by sending young men and women off to both commit, witness, and be on the receiving end of heinous acts of violence. As psychologist Jordan B. Peterson has written:
“Soldiers who develop post-traumatic stress disorder frequently develop it not because of something they saw, but because of something they did.”
In the last several years, the government has grown more open to letting psychedelic researchers, such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), begin clinical trials on testing psychedelic drugs as a means to treat PTSD. The substance Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) has been the most commonly tested member of the psychedelic family lately, as its use has helped many PTSD sufferers talk and work through their trauma without the bombardment of triggers.
Known to most as molly or ecstasy, this currently banned substance brought McCourry peace after nearly a decade of struggling with PTSD.
To be sure, McCourry did not encounter this drug at a rave or Burning Man. He was given MDMA in a controlled environment under the supervision of psychologists who also served as “guides,” leading him through the process of self-discovery. The MDMA used in this study were not bought off a dealer in some sketchy, dark alley either. MAPS was given state permission to have a chemist concoct the medication that was to be administered to McCourry. And it had life-changing consequences.
PTSD is, in itself, a survival mechanism. When you live in a state of constant instability, whether in war or growing up in a tumultuous home environment, PTSD keeps you on your guard. It is your body functioning in survival mode all of the time. But when you come home from war or are removed from the situation causing you distress, your psyche does not understand that it is safe from impending doom. The sufferer is unable to live in the present because they are consumed with living in their past trauma.
But MDMA allows the user to experience the here and now in ways they have not previously been able to. This allows them to break down their mental barriers and talk about past trauma without feeling as though they are facing impending doom or judgment for past acts. This is precisely what allowed McCourry to work through his trauma and truly heal.
Through his few sessions taking MDMA, McCourry was able to talk about things he had never discussed outside of combat. MDMA allowed him to dig into his experiences without plunging him into a seemingly perpetual darkness.
Speaking of his experience, McCourry said, “I don’t feel cured of PTSD. But now I can manage my symptoms in a whole lot better way.” And unlike antidepressants and antipsychotics, he does not have to take MDMA every day. He only needed a handful of sessions to make breakthrough discoveries.
While the FDA has “fast-tracked” MDMA for prescription use, it is still at least five years away from hitting the market. For many PTSD sufferers, five years is a death sentence. But again, this plight is not considered “terminal” by the administration, or any administration in the past for that matter.
Under Trump’s right to try policies, this type of peace of mind that McCourry gained would not be granted to veterans, who went off to fight the wars he and other foreign leaders have started and perpetuated.
While sending human beings off to war is often a death sentence on its own, once they return — if they are so lucky — we sentence them to the confines of their minds where they must live in agony as they attempt to deal with the things they have seen and the things they have done. The terminally ill absolutely deserve the right to try, but so do those suffering from mental ailments where suicide is an outcome that is not unfathomable, or even unexpected.
If Trump wants to amp up America’s military might, he’d better think twice about the mental toll it will take on the those being asked to carry out his agenda.
To be sure, the right of terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs is absolutely wonderful and should be celebrated to the utmost degree. But unfortunately under Trump’s vision, tyrannical foreign policy will continue, the drug war will continue, and those plagued by trauma run the risk of taking their own lives before the state allows them access to potentially lifesaving treatments.