When he was 19, Mike Whiter enlisted in the Marines and worked his way up to becoming a staff sergeant. In the five-year period following the Iraq War, Whiter, now 39, said he was placed on 40 different medications to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had been medically discharged from the Marines and treated at a Veterans Affairs hospital.
He said that his treatments included everything from anti-depressants to anti-anxiety medication. He also noted that when he was 35 years old, he was prescribed Methadone for the chronic pain he was experiencing.
In 2012, as he was searching for an alternative to prescription drugs and medications, Whiter watched a documentary about medical marijuana. After smoking just one joint, he said he was more relaxed than he ever had been from the combination of pharmaceuticals he had been taking. Whiter said about the change cannabis has made:
“I threw away my pills and my quality of life is better than it has been in years.”
He noted that while using cannabis may not cure PTSD, it can be an effective treatment when combined with therapy. His positive experience with medical marijuana has sparked a desire to help others and draw attention to the overmedication of veterans.
Whiter had enrolled as a photography student at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, but he said he struggled to shoot the subjects in the studio. After a professor suggesting taking pictures of veterans, he was inspired to combine his passion for photography with activism.
Launched in early June of this year, his project, called “Operation Overmed,” showcases pictures of veterans using substances such as medical marijuana and rejecting traditionally used pharmaceuticals. Whiter wants to share with the world what countless veterans, like himself, have experienced with medical treatment.
So far, the response to the project has been positive. The medical marijuana community has latched on to the idea, though Whiter hopes it gains traction on a broader level. Whiter said:
“The point is, all of these veterans have chosen alternative treatments whether it’s medical marijuana or acupuncture, yoga, I don’t care what it is.”
Whiter also says he wants to be able to show that veterans are shunning pills and taking their health into their own hands.
Whiter notes that medications can account for a number of veteran suicides because people who have PTSD are often prescribed pills that have side effects that include an increase in suicidal thoughts. That is a dangerous mix for someone who already feels suicidal. Whiter, who said that there are 27 states that report 22 veteran suicides a day, believes that Veterans Affairs facilities are killing patients through overmedication:
“I was one of those guys. I was a slave. I was in my house stuck in my head for like five years man, just on all these pills.”
All photos are examples of the art created by Mike Whiter.