Invictus Project: Changing The Standard of Mental Healthcare

I was ready to find some relief.

The words are familiar to any veteran with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, or depression. 

For former explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist Jeff Haugland, relief from the constant physical pain of spinal injuries; frequent, crippling migraines; and trouble sleeping initially came in the form of a bottle of Jameson. 

When he opened up about the challenges he faced to his friend and fellow EOD veteran Sam Peterson, he found Sam had a similar story. Both men had close encounters with suicide, and they also lost a mentor to suicide. 

“We were sick of watching our brothers and sisters killing themselves,” Sam said, “We knew that no one else was going to solve this problem the way we could solve this problem.”

And though they were veterans watching other veterans struggle, they knew that the problem was much, much bigger than the military community. Suicide is the second-most common cause of death for all Americans ages 15 to 34, and it’s in the top five causes of death for Americans ages 10 to 54. 

“This is an absolute epidemic that is not being addressed the right way,” Jeff said. 

They had both seen first-hand how the current treatments were failing. “I had been treated by the traditional medical system; I had been given prescription after prescription, trying to balance out my neurochemistry, and they didn’t work. They made everything worse,” Sam said. 

Sam and Jeff turned themselves into human guinea pigs, looking for and testing out alternative therapies that could create long-term, positive mental health outcomes. 

Close up of a hand writing on a white board

The nonprofit they formed, the Denver-based Invictus Project, focuses on using diagnostics to assess the brain and body, followed by a standard treatment protocol of ketamine infusions, stem cell therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and intranasal diluted insulin. Once the immediate mental health crisis has been addressed, the protocol calls for psychotherapy and lifestyle modifications to facilitate long-term wellbeing. 

Ketamine, an anesthetic and psychedelic, has been emerging as a treatment for depression, and has been found particularly useful in people with moderate to severe, treatment-resistant depression. One of the benefits of ketamine, beyond its ability to help people who haven’t been helped by traditional antidepressants, is that it doesn’t just relieve symptoms when the drug is in the body; it actually causes the brain to regrow connections. 

“I like to say it’s like hitting control-alt-delete for your brain,” Jeff said.

Now, Sam and Jeff are raising funds to put veterans through their treatment protocol and gather data on the outcomes. They aim to use their pilot study to change how the DoD treats active-duty soldiers and how the VA treats veterans with PTSD, TBI, and depression. In addition to their nonprofit, the team has a for-profit arm offering the same services, Invictus Health, Inc, which recently won a DoD SBIR award to treat active duty service members. 

pointing to a brain scan projected on a wall mounted computer monitor

Eventually, they hope to change the standard of care for everyone with mental health issues, including civilians. 

“I believe everything happens for a reason,” Sam said. “This is the reason we weren’t able to pull the trigger. It’s our job to fix this problem.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255). If it’s an emergency, call 911. 

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