Former Canadian soldier who fought in Afghanistan seeks psychedelic therapy to heal wounds of war

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      Scott Atkinson left the battlefields of Afghanistan more than a decade ago.

      The Canadian veteran now wages a different war, a fight to heal himself.

      This all goes back to when he returned home “with anger”.

      “I was full of anger, and I didn’t know how to take care of it, you know,” Atkinson told the Straight in a phone interview from Smiths Falls, a town outside Ottawa.

      “The guilt from things that may have happened. So many things,” the military veteran added.

      His emotional wounds exacted a heavy price.

      “I put myself through a lot, not admitting my mental health injuries,” Atkinson related. “And I was drinking for a long time. I was using opioids to try to stop the pain.”

      His suffering also hurt the ones he loves.

      “It took a toll on my family, on my wife, on my children,” Atkinson said.

      Many of his comrades in arms went and continue to go through this kind of mental ordeal. Some veterans have fallen.

      “I saw so many friends took suicide just in the last year, year and a half,” Atkinson said.

      He left the Canadian military with the rank of master corporal. He joined in 1992, and he hung up his uniform in 2018.

      The former infantryman did one tour in the former republic of Yugoslavia; he did two in Afghanistan.

      “If you look at my whole career, I probably have 15 to 20 close friends that have committed suicide,” Atkinson said. “I don’t want to see that with more friends.”

      Atkinson currently lives on a military veteran’s pension.

      He also said that he spends time with a group called Vanguard Wellness. This outfit connected him with Field Trip Health, a psychedelics company based in Toronto.

      With Field Trip, Atkinson has found new buddies in his quest to heal himself. The company supports his application for an exemption under Canada’s drug laws to use psilocybin, a banned substance.

      Psilocybin is the hallucinogenic compound found in so-called magic mushrooms in the genus Psilocybe.

      Proponents say the substance increases a person’s sense of optimism. Moreover, it’s touted to promote well-being and reduce negative feelings. Studies also indicate that psilocybin lowers anxiety and depression.

      Atkinson needs all the help he can get.

      He suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder, treatment-resistant depression, treatment-resistant generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, and chronic pain syndrome, according to a Field Trip media release.

      If Atkinson gets legal access to psilocybin, he will undergo psychotherapy in Toronto under the supervision of Dr. Michael Verbora, medical director of Field Trip.

      Ontario lawyer Ronan Levy cofounded the company, where he serves as executive chairperson.

      “Of anyone, with his valour and distinguished career, Master Corporal Atkinson is certainly amongst the most deserving to be given this exemption,” Levy said in the release.

      That depends on federal Minister of Health Patty Hajdu. The minister has the power to grant an exemption under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. She can do this for medical or scientific purposes or if she deems it to serve the public interest.

      In the media release, Field Trip stated that, if granted, the Section 56 exemption would be the first for a Canadian military veteran.

      Also, it would be the first granted to a Canadian without a terminal illness or not in palliative care.

      In August 2020, Hajdu granted exemptions for four terminally ill patients to use psilocybin to ease their end-of-life distress.

      “Also, if approved, the application will open the door for Canadians and other military veterans to pursue access to psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy,” the release said.

      Atkinson told the Straight that he has written Hajdu for such an exemption. “In Afghanistan, we were mortared and bombed every day,” he said.

      And there was a lot more that he saw and did. “I was with the forward operating guys, who called in a lot of fire missions and everything,” Atkinson said.

      Soldiers returning from war to reintegrate themselves in peace don’t have it easy, he noted.

      “You come back home to Vancouver or Toronto and it’s supposed to be normal,” Atkinson said with a chuckle. “It’s really hard.”

      Victory is sometimes difficult to measure in a war, but not for Atkinson in his new battle.

      “Now I’m working to heal myself, but it’s always going to be healing the relationship with my wife and children,” he said.