Veteran Brad Schafer has been placed on suicide watch four times since being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2016.
- Young veteran with PTSD immediately signs up for medicinal cannabis trial
- Medications used to treat the disorder cause him crippling side effects
- The Australian Defence Force reports about 8.3 per cent of its members have experienced PTSD in the past 12 months
For the 25-year-old, the fear of relapse is a lurking threat.
He has used conventional medications to treat his symptoms but said their effectiveness waned over time.
So when a new national trial of medicinal cannabis for veterans with PTSD was announced this week, the Sunshine Coast resident eagerly applied to take part.
The fourth-generation defence serviceman has not seen active service overseas and was medically discharged from the Australian Defence Force in 2017 after a 2016 incident that he would prefer not to talk about.
Mr Schafer said treating the crippling symptoms of his disorder also meant enduring the debilitating side effects of the drugs he relied on to keep it at bay.
But he said the impact of the two kinds of anti-depressants, an anti-psychotic medication and Valium when needed was “nowhere near as bad as being suicidal”.
“I can deal with constant headaches, having a dry mouth, feeling emotionally detached from family members and loved ones; I can deal with that because I’m still alive,” he said.
Impact of medication
Mr Schafer said while his medication allowed him to do everyday activities like sleep, shop for groceries and prevented “the rumination of thought, the memories, the guilt”, he struggled to do things that other young men often enjoyed.
“I can’t go and have a beer with my mates, I can’t drink on the medication, I can’t go to a bar without getting into an argument.
“It’s just that short trigger, driven by frustration and anger of having the PTSD.
“A combination of that, hypervigilance and extreme anxiety all the time.
“I get left out of social events.
“Every single moment that I’m alive now revolves around avoiding having triggered symptoms.”
Mr Schafer said even exercise, which was often seen as a positive way to manage stress, was difficult because he sweated profusely from the medications.
“Because of that, going to the gym isn’t something where if I get frustrated or anxious, I can’t just have that outlet.”
Drinking up to 4 litres of water a day, Mr Schafer said he needed to plan his day around hydration.
Sexual dysfunction was “one of the touchier subjects” around taking his medication.
“I’m 25 years old, complete erectile dysfunction, I mean I’ve got a partner, we really desperately want to start a family … and I can’t,” he said.
“That really hurts and that hurts my partner a lot.”
Managing PTSD through medication
It has taken a “roller coaster” 18-month journey to find the right combination of medication to treat his PTSD.
Mr Schafer said because each person had different brain chemistry, the process was not straight forward.
“It’s not just one pill to help everybody,” he said.
“What might help one person [with PTSD] will do the opposite to another, it’ll make someone else worse.”
He said many veterans struggled to trust the health care system and the process to get the right medication.
“There’s a lot of stigma around psychiatric medication [but] it’s not as bad as you think.
“It doesn’t change you to a different person, it just helps.”
He said the medications were not a permanent fix for his PTSD and he constantly feared a relapse.
“Depending on the person and depending on the meds, they could last three months, they could last 12 months before you start relapsing,” he said.
Under the supervision of his psychiatrist, Mr Schafer was again changing his medications.
“It’s just about knowing yourself and going, ‘Alright, I’m not doing as well as I was, let’s go and have a look’,” he said.
‘A step in the right direction’
Director of the Sunshine Coast Mind and Neuroscience — Thompson Institute, Jim Lagopoulos, said the trial was a “step in the right direction”.
Professor Lagopoulos has established an independent neuroimaging research program with a focus on traumatic brain injury and PTSD, and said he would be watching the medicinal cannabis trial “very closely”.
“At the moment, the current mainstay treatment [for PTSD] is not great — that is the reality. It’s the best we’ve got, but we’ve got to be looking for new treatments.”
However, Professor Lagopoulos emphasised that medicinal cannabis was not yet proven to be a viable treatment option.
“[The trial] is a good development, but we need to be cautious about what it represents as it is an observational study,” he said.
“It’s certainly not a cure … all the trial is trying to understand is if indeed it works at all and if there are side effects.”
Medicinal cannabis gives hope
While he was hopeful of being accepted into the new national medicinal cannabis trial, Mr Schafer said he worried about the future.
“Because I’m so young with PTSD, I will probably have gone through most of the medications available, then what?
“CBD [medicinal cannabis] provides this hope, this light at the end of the tunnel, that possibly one day I don’t have this burden of forever changing goal posts, and I don’t have this burden of one day suicide’s going to creep back in.”
Cherishing connections through art and mateship
In the meantime, Mr Schafer has turned to art therapy and valued the support network at his local RSL Kawana Sub Branch.
Fifteen young veterans have joined the branch in the past year and Mr Schafer said all board members took part in suicide prevention training, showing the board’s commitment to understanding PTSD.
He has also discovered his creative side in art therapy classes, an activity he enjoyed with his partner.
“The part of the brain that you use to do this, is the same part of the brain that helps you heal from grief and loss,” he said.
Editor’s note (17/6/2019): An updated version of this story has been published to include the views of Professor Jim Lagopoulos.
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