🫠 Psychonaut POV

[5-min read] Q&A with Justin LaPree, Veteran & Former Firefighter

Welcome to Tricycle Day. Reading our newsletter: we’re not saying it’s a life-or-death situation… but we’re not saying it’s not life or death, either. 🤔 

⚠️ Warning: Today’s issue contains discussions around suicide that some Cyclists may find triggering. Please use your discretion whether to read on.

Between 17 and 44 veterans die by suicide every day. Justin LaPree was almost another statistic, but at the last moment, something—someone—intervened. Now he’s dedicated to helping other vets and first responders step out of the darkness through his sanctuary, Heroic Path to Light.

We asked Justin what puts these groups at a heightened risk of suicide, why he never calls his faith-based organization a “church,” and how community and sacred communion work together to bring about healing.

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Justin LaPree Psychonaut POV
Psilocybin came into your life after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. What led to that moment of reckoning, and what role has entheogenic medicine played in your recovery?

As a child, I dealt with every form of abuse imaginable, caught in the middle of my parents’ toxic relationship. I’d have done anything to escape the chaos at home. In 2001, I got my chance and enlisted in the Marines. Just a few months later, the towers fell. Training for war gave me a sense of purpose, but my deployments to the Middle East changed me in ways I wasn’t prepared for. I returned home carrying even heavier burdens than I’d left with—traumatic brain injury, moral injury, and a crisis of faith. I thought I’d hit rock bottom when I was homeless, unemployed, and addicted to prescription oxies to numb the pain.

Many years later, I found myself on the front lines as a firefighter in Austin. All the gruesome accidents and tragedies I witnessed only added to the weight of my survivor's guilt. I’d lost so many friends by then to suicide that I’d lost count. Everything piled onto the pain that had followed me since my childhood and the battlefield.

Eventually, the darkness became too much to bear. Sitting in my truck, I placed a gun in my mouth, and, for once, everything became still. I was ready. Then I pulled the trigger.

But somehow, fate intervened. Someone—I still don’t know who—had removed the rounds, extending a lifeline when I needed it most. They’d loved me even when I couldn’t love myself. That second chance marked the beginning of my unconventional journey toward healing.

After reading about people’s experiences with psilocybin, I figured out how to grow my own mushrooms. Then I followed the Johns Hopkins protocol alone in my apartment. For six hours, emotions surged and buried memories rose to the surface. It was a soul-baring experience that completely shifted my perspective.

That first experience with the sacred mushroom and the many ceremonies that followed ultimately led me to founding Heroic Path to Light. Since our inaugural retreat in November 2022, we’ve supported more than 50 individuals and their families through comprehensive entheogenic therapy programs. It hasn’t been easy to create a space like this for communal healing in Texas, but all the risk is validated every time I see this medicine and the power of community save another life, just as it did mine.

How have your experiences in the Marine Corps and Fire Department shaped your understanding of trauma and mental health? Why are these communities at such heightened risk of suicide?

The culture in the military and first responders has a serious problem. There's an unspoken rule that says, "If you're not okay, suck it up." We’re conditioned to hide our emotions and push forward, no matter what happens in these brutal jobs. We're scared to open up because we fear being labeled as messed up, crazy, or weak. It's a terrible stigma that stops us from seeking help.

I had a close friend named Jacob, who’d helped save me after my suicide attempt. But I never realized what he was going through himself. When he took his own life almost a year ago to the day, it hit me hard. It seemed like he had it all together; he was the last person you'd think was struggling. But we're good at hiding, all of us. We often miss these signs because we don't engage enough with one another on a sincere, honest, and vulnerable level.

But recently, it does feel like the tides are turning. More of us are speaking up and finding safe spaces to voice our emotions. It's incredibly freeing, letting myself feel and accepting those feelings without judgment. I've turned into someone who embraces emotions, which wasn't me before. It has allowed me to release the trauma I’d been holding onto for years. My body doesn't cling to it anymore.

Heroic Path to Light is 508(c)(1)(a) Faith Based Organization. Why did you choose to set the organization up as a sanctuary?

I call our place a sanctuary because religious trauma is very common in this country. I'm careful with words because people put up walls when they hear the word, "church." Regardless, these sacraments create a direct connection to the divine for me. They've shown me ancient wisdom far beyond what I learned growing up Catholic. Back then, we did things because we were told, not because we truly understood.

Seeing the clinical trials on these medicines is an exciting step forward. But why should you need a medical diagnosis to commune with God? Our country suffers from a lack of community and spirituality. People are feeling depressed because they're isolated. As humans, we’re meant to connect soul to soul.

This isn't about preaching the gospel. It's about acceptance and finding that connection in a community. These medicines have been used this way for ages in different communities, where elders passed down knowledge through stories. Unfortunately, most of us have lost that connection.

Having a sacred space to commune together, to understand ourselves as spiritual beings, to find that connection with the divine, is revolutionary. Spirituality needs to come back into our lives and communities. The whole world needs it. We're killing each other over our religious beliefs. But what if instead, spirituality helped us love ourselves and each other better? I know it can.

Can you explain the role of community in Heroic Path to Light? How does peer support help facilitate healing and integration?

Community is the heart of it all. The community is the real medicine. It’s where people find the safety to open up and experience these profound changes and transformations.

Look at the Western medical model. It’s broken in part because it lacks a community healing aspect. Even psychedelic retreat centers abroad, where folks go home to their separate lives, rarely produce the same results that we’re seeing. Our members stay connected. They're in the same chat, sharing videos and voice messages. Life still has its challenges, but with this community, you're not alone anymore.

We've got over 80 active members. It’s a family of brothers and sisters ready to celebrate wins, help through losses, and guide and mentor each other. Whether you've been here since the beginning or just joined, you're part of the same tribe. That's why this works. The psychedelic is just a tool, one of many that moves people forward. But love is the answer, and healing happens in community.

What are your hopes and goals for the future of Heroic Path to Light, and how do you envision it evolving?

The goal is to eradicate suicide, one soul at a time, and make healing accessible to everyone. Imagine treating our active-duty military right as they exit combat zones, helping them reintegrate before they even see their families. Or what if a firefighter could come to us immediately after he retires? Better yet, police academy grads could spend a week here before ever joining the squad, so that they can serve with empathy in their hearts.

This organization is on track to revolutionize mental health treatment by centering group communion. I envision Heroic Path to Light establishing chapters nationwide, impacting far more lives than we can reach from our Austin headquarters alone. It has to be a collective effort as we walk each other home. It's about "we," not "I" or "me."

I'm proud of the struggles I've faced; they've shaped who I am today. I’m grateful for the anonymous friend who saved my life, for Jacob, and for the many others without whom I wouldn’t be alive today. This is the most incredible and purposeful thing I've ever done, and it's brought me a beautiful family.

Want more from Justin?

Learn more about Heroic Path to Light’s programs, and support their mission to ensure no hero walks alone.

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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.

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