PTSD veteran: I'm not crazy

Scott

Story highlights

  • 80% of veterans diagnosed with PTSD are given psychiatric drugs, VA says
  • Carol Costello: Military spending on psychoactive drugs shocked me

Carol Costello anchors the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Army Spc. Scott Barber has beautiful, bright blue eyes. I mention his eyes because, he said, they turned black the day he died.

"I flatlined. I seized," he told me, his voice shaking.
Barber, like thousands of other veterans, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. And, sadly, as I came to find out, he, like hundreds of others, overdosed on a cocktail of prescription drugs meant to help him cope.
    I met Barber at an experimental -- some might say radical -- rehabilitation program for veterans who suffer from PTSD. It's called "Operation: Tohidu," a Cherokee word that means peace of mind, body and spirit. But while it sounds Zen-like, the woman who runs the program is decidedly not. Dr. Mary Vieten, a clinical psychologist, comes across as the tough Navy veteran she is -- fiercely protective of her "warriors," who she says are misdiagnosed by the doctors the government provides to help them.
    Carol Costello
    "God bless 'em, they mean well," she told me. "But what do psychiatrists do? They deal with mental illness. That is the model."
    And how do most psychiatrists treat mental disorders? Usually with drugs -- lots of them. I am not exaggerating. According to a Department of Veterans Affairs study, 80% of veterans diagnosed with PTSD are given psychiatric drugs. Of them, 89% are given anti-depressants. And, according to ongoing research conducted by New York University psychiatrist Dr. Charles Marmar -- funded, in part, by the Department of Defense -- troops are given these drugs despite estimates that only 20% of veterans suffering from PTSD are treated "effectively."
    Hey, big Pharma must be happy, though. From 2005 to 2011, military spending on psychoactive drugs -- like anti-psychotics, sedatives, stimulants and mood enhancers -- increased by nearly 700%, according to Tricare Management Activity, the division of the Department of Defense that manages health care services for the military.

    Is PTSD a mental illness?

    These kinds of figures shocked me, but infuriated Vieten. She said this model, these drugs, are not effective. Not at all. Not even sometimes. She said psychiatric drugs for treatment of PTSD are ineffective 100% of the time because -- and this is where Vieten goes rogue -- PTSD is not a mental illness or mental disorder.
    "You don't go into the theater of operations as a highly skilled professional with god-like powers and then suddenly one day, you know, have a screw loose," she said. "It just doesn't make sense."
    I admit I was taken aback, but Vieten did not back down. She told me, if anything, it's normal to suffer trauma after serving on the field of battle. Why? Because battle is traumatizing.
    Most experts disagree with Vieten. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders -- considered the gold standard for physicians evaluating mental disorders -- PTSD is a mental illness.
    I sat down with Dr. Harold Kudler. He is a respected psychiatrist who has worked with hundreds of troops with PTSD. He's intrigued by Vieten's methods, but he doesn't endorse her total dismissal of therapy involving drugs.
    "I honestly think we'd be doing a disservice if we said you must never take a medicine for this when there is so much evidence medicine can help," he told me. "What we need is the right medicine for you at the right dose at the right time for the right period of time."
    Tell that to Scott Barber.
    After serving in Iraq, he suffered from depression. He had trouble sleeping, he felt worthless, like he "didn't fit in." He, like so many others, sought help from military doctors provided by the Department of Defense. And, like so many others, was given what he described as a "goody bag" of drugs.

    'I must be really screwed up'

    Barber took the drugs, but said they made him feel worse.
    "I was like 'Gosh man, I must be really screwed up, because what these guys are telling me are going to help me, I actually feel worse.' "
    Guess what the military's answer was? More drugs. At the height of his prescription drug regimen, Barber said he was taking seven drugs, including powerful anti-psychotic medications.
    He said he felt "like a zombie." Until that day he -- died.
    "We have a Christmas tradition (in my family) where we all sit around and play Pictionary," he recounted. "I'm sitting there with my sister and it was my turn to draw. So I get up to go draw and my sister says, 'Hey, Scott, what color are your eyes?' I said, 'You're silly, they're blue.'" His words come faster now. "So she pulls out her compact (and) goes, 'no man, look.' And they were solid black. There was no blue."
    Barber told his sister he felt fine.
    "As I started to draw I felt something in my ears and my ears started to bleed. All of the sudden I just heard them freak out and I hit the ground. That's the last thing I remember."
    Scott Barber -- a proud Iraq War veteran -- died on his family's living room floor.
    Paramedics revived him in the back of an ambulance. Later, he said, hospital doctors would tell him the cocktail of drugs he was taking was a "recipe for death." Barber recovered physically, but could barely function. He felt lost, confused. Hopeless. Until the day he got a call from Dr. Mary Veiten.
    The first thing she told him: You're not crazy.
    For Barber, it was a turning point. "I felt like a thousand pounds had lifted off my chest," he told me. "I could breathe again."
    "There is no mental illness here," Vieten said. "People will call us all the time and ask if we are going to take their pills away or be in pajamas, because that's the way they've been treated in the past is in programs where they start out in pajamas with no possessions. And I just say to them on the phone 'Why would we do that?' If you're not mentally ill, what would be the point of that exercise?" Her words are often met with intense emotion from the troops on the other end of the line.

    Recovery takes tim