AUSTIN (KXAN) — When C.T. Thompson looks at a picture of himself from a few years ago standing on a snow-covered mountain in Colorado, he sees something others might not. He said he sees a man who was angry and closed off.

“I was just struggling to get through a lot of days,” Thompson said. “Everything from anger, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance.”

Veteran C.T. Thompson said he sees anger in his face when he looks at this picture taken before psychedelic therapy (Courtesy C.T. Thompson)

Thompson is a veteran, an elite Green Beret with more than a dozen years in the military and as a military contractor. Green Berets are Special Forces soldiers described on the U.S. Army recruitment website as “the toughest of tough.”

“All together, I did seven combat deployments,” he said. He now lives in College Station.

He served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a few other places and believes it was prolonged exposure to the terrors of war that wore him down. He said he first started noticing changes in his personality when he was still overseas.

“Just a lack of feeling for things,” he said. “Just being apathetic about a lot of things, which is totally not my personality.”

  • man in uniform holding a gun
  • men in uniform posing for photo
  • man sitting amid a rocky hillside
  • man sitting on a stoop
  • man in silhouette as the sun peeks through the clouds

Heading back home, and getting help

When he got back home, Thompson said he continued to struggle. He said he had trouble sleeping, drank too much, and, in his darkest moments, considered suicide.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or a suicidal crisis, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Crisis counselors are available 24/7.

“I felt like I had no place on this planet,” he said. “And it’s a really dark place to go to feel like you just don’t belong here anymore.”

But that was then.

“I now have this love and compassion for myself and just this whole new outlook on life,” he said.

That new outlook he said, was brought on by just one round of treatment with psychedelic drugs. During his struggle, Thompson connected with a group called VETS, Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, who gave him coaching and a grant to undergo psychedelic treatment in Mexico, because they say psychedelics are unregulated there.

Over the course of a weekend in 2021, Thompson said he had controlled doses of two types of psychedelic drugs.

“It changed my life,” he said. “I can’t really explain exactly how it works, other than just how it worked for me.”

Exploring psychedelic drugs as a solution

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 17 veterans die by suicide every day. But some veterans say psychedelic drug therapy has saved their lives.

Other than one specific drug, ketamine, psychedelic drug therapy is not available in the United States, but there is research underway that could one day make that happen, including in Austin.

Greg Fonzo is co-director of the Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy at UT Austin Dell Medical School. Simply put, Fonzo explained psychedelics appear to help parts of the brain better communicate.

“It really allows people to get unstuck from a lot of the repetitive, negative thought patterns that they become stuck in,” Fonzo said.

  • Greg Fonzo is co-chair of the Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy at UT Austin, Dell Medical School (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)
  • This room will soon be used for controlled psychedelic drug dosing at the center (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)

The center is studying groups made up of veterans suffering from PTSD and other conditions. It’s also testing psychedelics on family members suffering from prolonged grief over the loss of a member of the military.

The participants go through a battery of assessments like brain imaging at the center, then head to a retreat center in Mexico for controlled dosing and come back for reassessments to see how their brain function has changed.

Soon, researchers will be administering doses themselves. It’ll take place inside a dosing room at the center. After the controlled dosing, the patient will lie down on a bed with headphones playing music, their eyes covered, a therapist nearby and researchers monitoring their actions with cameras.

The Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy has also been tapped to take part in a worldwide study researching the impact Psilocybin, the psychedelic in mushrooms, has on treating depression resistant to other forms of treatment.

This type of research may get an infusion of federal money if Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw has his way. Crenshaw, a veteran himself, is sponsoring a bill to earmark federal money to fund research of psychedelic therapy on active-duty service members. Crenshaw said in an interview last month with Nexstar’s NewsNation that he was inspired to act after hearing other veterans’ experiences with psychedelics.

“In one case, he had tried to kill himself five times. And this one day of treatment, one day of treatment, just resets, like resets them,” Crenshaw said during the interview.

Thompson said he is all for the funding, hoping it will eventually open up treatment in the U.S. beyond clinical research.

“People who have served this country,” he said, “they should not have to leave their own country to be getting these treatments.”

Treatments, he said, like the ones that freed him of the trauma he was carrying and allowed him to thrive rather than just survive.

  • C.T. Thompson with his wife and son (Courtesy C.T. Thompson)
  • Thompson said since his psychedelic therapy he's been a better husband and father (Courtesy C.T. Thompson)

After that one weekend of treatments, Thompson said he stopped drinking alcohol, finished his degree, started a business and reconnected with his family.

“Just being able to be, I mean just in my family, a better husband, a better father,” he said.

Thompson stressed there is no “magic pill” with this type of therapy. He continues to meet regularly with his coach from VETS and is always trying to improve himself.

While the American Psychiatric Association does not endorse the use of psychedelics on a wide scale, the organization’s website states APA officially supports further research and therapeutic discovery into the use of psychedelics.