The Neurological, Psychological, and Spiritual Costs of War and Violence

Gary G. Kohls, MD

For the last decade of my 40-year career as a family physician, I practiced what was best termed holistic mental health care (i.e., using non-drug approaches, gradual psych drug withdrawal, nutritional therapy for the brain, and psychoeducational psychotherapy to achieve mental wellness).

My interest in mental health had came about during a time when I was employed at a mental institution, providing medical health care to the poorly nourished, hopeless, incarcerated patients who had been labeled chronically mentally ill (not to mention totally disabled). Virtually all of them had been on two or more powerful psych drugs, the combinations of which had never been FDA-approved for safety or effectiveness long term.

In that particular mental institution I observed that virtually all of the patients I had personally interviewed and examined (when these psychiatric patients had developed non-psychological illnesses) easily qualified for a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I also noted that essentially none of the patients I encountered actually had a diagnosis of PTSD listed on their charts. Instead they had all been labeled with any number of other “mental illnesses of unknown origin.”

PTSD was virtually universal in the group I encountered, but it was clearly an unknown reality among the professionals at that institution.

The discovery of that obvious blind spot on the part of that particular psychiatric hospital aroused my curiosity. And my persistence in trying to understand that issue informed my future career path into holistic mental health care and preventive psychiatry. I suspect that my intense interest in getting to the truth of the matter also resulted in my being “down-sized” out of that job!

Could “mental illnesses” be preventable,
self-limited, temporary, and curable?

And so, when I transformed my practice into one that emphasized non-drug, holistic mental healthcare a few years later, my focus was going to be helping psychologically or spiritually traumatized individuals from being mis-diagnosed with the 374 different American Psychiatric Association-approved (in the DSM-IV codebook) “mental illnesses of unknown etiology.” And since psychological trauma is usually a preventable cause of mental ill health, I wanted to explore the preventability—and the cure—of patients who had such diagnoses.

Many of the patients that came to see me had never had a good trial of psychotherapy with a thorough, caring, compassionate psychotherapist prior to their being prescribed a multitude of synthetic brain-altering and often brain-damaging, not to mention addicting, drugs. Most of them had not even had any effective social services or nutritional help, and, despite the fact that virtually all of them were malnourished, none of them had ever had any trial with brain nutrient therapy. Rather, virtually all of them had been immediately treated with potentially dangerous, neurotoxic psychiatric drugs.  Some of my patients had had courses of electroshock “therapy” (electrocution of any part of the body or brain has long been known to be cell-damaging) when the drugs, often used for years in large doses and in combinations of unproven safety, were found to be worthless, addictive, destructive, and/or disabling.

I found that many of my patients had never actually been mentally ill prior to being placed on any of the five categories of psych drugs (“anti-anxiety” drugs, “anti-depressant” drugs, “mood-stabilizing” drugs, “anti-schizophrenia” drugs, and psychostimulants). In many instances, the drugs had been prescribed “off label” (not approved for use in certain diagnoses by the FDA) for physical illnesses or poorly understood problems like fatigue, tiredness, malnutrition, spiritual crises, pain, or understandable sadness or nervousness that, with good non-drug therapies, could have been completely and permanently resolved.

In addition to these otherwise mentally normal but stressed-out and/or physically ill patients being placed on brain-altering drugs, many of the crisis events that had caused my patients to decompensate emotionally (and therefore seek mental health care in the first place) were actually only temporary, often self-correcting incidents. Many of these patients had had curable root causes that could have been treated and cured with short-term psychotherapy and no drugs.

PTSD is not just
a simple mental illness

Indeed, the vast majority of my patients that had been labeled with one or more of the 374  Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel (DSM) diagnoses for “mental illness of unknown cause” had actually been physically, psychologically, emotionally, and/or spiritually traumatized. Therefore, like the many patients I saw in the mental institution mentioned above, my patients actually had PTSD and therefore had a problem that had a known cause and thus was fully understandable, with known root causes that then had logical treatment and preventive strategies that didn’t require long-term drugging.

I also discovered that most of the patients that came to see me had, somewhere along the line, experienced adverse effects from thir synthetic medications. Many also knew that they had become dependent on (addicted to) their drugs, with serious withdrawal symptoms when they tried to cut down or quit them, thus causing them to have a new set of crazy-making withdrawal symptoms (mislabeled by the intentionally deceptive pharmaceutical industry as a “discontinuation syndrome”). Their withdrawal syndromes were also frequently misdiagnosed by the patients’ prescribing practitioners as a “relapse” of the original “mental illness,” with the patient typically being told to never try to stop their medication again, even if the drugs were obviously doing them harm.

And then there was the special situation of the combat-traumatized military veteran.

Combat-induced PTSD

I saw a number of veterans who had experienced serious neuro-psycho-spiritual trauma in basic training, in combat, or in other pre- or post-combat domestic violence, often related to a personal history of childhood trauma. Most of the veteran patients I saw happened to be from the Vietnam War era, and I noticed that the ones who were the most functional in their lives and responsive to the treatment I offered were the ones who had refused to take their VA-prescribed psychotropic drugs. Many times they had found the adverse effects intolerable and therefore generally never took any drug long enough to get dependent on it. Therefore they had not had to go through the often painful and crazy-making withdrawal process. They had also never had to endure the even more disabling and memory-destroying electroshock “therapy.”

The group of Vietnam veterans that I treated had been searching (for decades!) for help to understand their “mental” health issues. They had searched in vain for treatments for their PTSD symptoms using methods other than the (acknowledged to be) non-curative psychiatric drugs from the VA. My group of Vietnam vets, each of whom made great strides in recovery, was unusual in that they were not blind patriots. Indeed, some of them had turned into anti-war activists (which was usually therapeutic).

My veteran patients, none of whom, thankfully, had experienced a traumatic brain injury (a feature that seriously complicates, perhaps even dooms, effective treatment for PTSD), were aware and open-minded enough to recognize that they had been duped by military recruiters and other flag-waving, pro-war militarists at the time of their signing up for war.

They had been fooled into believing the propaganda lie that said they were doing their patriotic duty to “make the world safe for democracy.” And they had eventually come to realize that they had actually been fighting to make the world safe for corrupt crony capitalism, the exploitive and conscienceless type of economic system that is always greedily plotting to acquire or steal the natural resources that military domination would grant them access to—with somebody else’s money (taxpayers’) paying the bill.

Chumped by the
ruling elite to make
murder for the state

My group of veterans was humble, honest, and courageous enough to admit that they had been chumped by the ruling elites, the war-profiteering corporations, and the U.S.’s uber-patriotic Pentagon, neighbors, families, media, congresspersons, and presidents. And, when their eyes had opened up to the truth (and they had finally found other vets who had also been freed from the brainwashing), the whole dysfunctional process that had engulfed them and ruined their lives was finally exposed and de-mystified. And then, at long last gaining some understanding about the real roots of their emotional and spiritual distress, they were on the road to a drug-free recovery.

One of the realities that had become clear to my veterans group is expressed in the following anti-Vietnam War poem, “For the Minority,” that the poet Robert Peterson wrote in 1967, at the height of that atrocity-producing war. Peterson begins his poem by quoting the 8th century Chinese poet Tu Fu, who understood the roots of war and, at his peril, had criticized the militaristic dynasty he lived under.

For the Minority

“The King hungers for territory—therefore we fight.” –Tu Fu

Our objections to the war
are making the King angry
and his Troops uneasy.

Not convinced
that those who have done us no harm
should starve and burn,
we are suspected
of ulterior motives
by some subjects.

But to be merely unpopular
in an unpopular country
is no disgrace,

And better that killing of official enemies
at lower levels
be done without pride or joy

The National Purpose
is said to be firm.
Is said to be firm.

But are we to fall in line grossly outside the palace
without thought
or question if the Flag is crooked?

When one is guided by conscience only
There is no other side
to which one can cross.

Even so, perhaps we no longer
belong here.

–Robert Peterson, from the 1967 collection of poems by The American Writers Against the Vietnam War entitled “A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War”

In order to understand the multitude of lethal psycho-spiritual and neurotoxic consequences of engaging in war and being exposed to military toxins, it might be helpful to read what Eugene Debs had to say about war. Debs was a union organizer and a frequent Socialist candidate for president in the early decades of the 20th century. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for speaking out against WWI. He received a million votes as a 1920 write-in candidate for U.S. president while he was in jail! Debs courageously said:

“Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder and it is the working class who fights all the battles, the working class who makes the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely sheds their blood and furnishes their corpses, and it is they who have never yet had a voice—in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class (the “plutocrats”) that invariably does both. They alone declare war. They are continually talking about patriotic duty. It is not their patriotic duty but your patriotic duty that they are concerned about. Their patriotic duty never takes them to the firing line or chucks them into the trenches.”

Patriotic sloganeering hides the hideous realities that the often unaware “boots on the ground” are thrown into when they sign up for glory. In many cases these immature soldiers (who are often too young to understand the dire consequences of their actions) are doing so without the full information they need to know about the potentially permanent suicidal and homicidal risks to their neurological, mental, spiritual, or physical health.

It should be the duty of those of us with cooler heads to warn them about the real and well-hidden costs of participation in their nation’s wars for empire, which are decidedly NOT to keep democracy safe, and which are fought for the resources that will enrich the ruthless corporations and their shareholders.