Breaking Convention: My first Psychedelics conference

bc15-banner-brown

This weekend I attended something quite unlike my usual conferences, as many of you will know I am something of a veteran of the conference scene – in particular health (especially mental health), social care, youth work and technology. As much as I love being part of this scene I do often find that:

1) I have a fairly good understanding of a lot of the sessions, workshops and talks already

2) When I present at these conferences I often find myself facing a room full of faces I already know, who have heard me give the talk or something similar before – preaching to the converted.

So I decided to shake things up a bit and attend a very different conference: Breaking Convention 2015.

Breaking Convention is a multidisciplinary conference on psychedelic consciousness, featuring more than 130 presenters from around the world and attended by around 800 delegates from an equally dizzying array of countries.

Look at all these happy faces!

Look at all these happy faces!

I actually first found out about BC through a school friend, Dave King, who is one of the co-founders of the organisation. I have been following some of his incredible, groundbreaking work over the last few years but this was the first year I could 1) manage and 2) afford to attend the actual event – and I’m so glad I did!

Other than the Breaking Convention talks I really didn’t know what to expect and I was a bit anxious as it was one of the few times in my life I’ve been to a conference where I’ve only known one other person. Thankfully my suspicion that it would be a wonderfully open and welcoming conference was confirmed on day 1 and by day 3 I had made several friends from across the world and had some incredible, meaningful conversations on a huge range of topics: from mental health to human rights and so much more.

Days 1 and 2

On the first few days I mainly went to talks about clinical applications and research into Psychedelics as this is something I know a bit about but wanted to know more – especially some of the more cutting edge international work that is being done in countries with far less restrictive laws than the UK. I will make a list underneath of all the talks I attended that I thought were particularly interesting or had the most profound effect on me.

You will also be able to Breaking Convention videos when they are uploaded over the coming weeks.

I also may have found a new look for myself – this is what happens when you play “I can fit more through my tunnel than thou” with strangers at strange conferences..

Flower Power

Flower Power

The final day

As day three was the last one I decided I would not only try and attend as many sessions as possible but also to go to sessions which I knew nothing about so I ended up learning about some completely new ideas and research.

The show stealing presentation was of course given by Professor David Nutt who is something of a personal hero of mine. His talk was titled “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater: How irrational drug laws are hampering medical research” and left us with a sobering picture not just of how hard it is currently in the UK to conduct research in this field but also just how dangerous and stupid the New Psychoactive Substances Bill is. You can Professor Nutt twitter for more updates on his work and campaigning and I also recommend his book Drugs Without The Hot Air.

Obviously this was a major highlight of the weekend for me:

David Nutt tweet

What did I learn about?

Over the three days of the conference I didn’t manage to attend as many talks and workshops as I had hoped due to anxiety and fatigue but I still managed to attend all the talks listed below, videos of all talks will be available on the Breaking Convention videos soon.

– Synesthesia and Psychedelics
– Concepts of Psychedelic drugs as therapeutic agents
– The discovery of the Endocannabinoid system and it’s importancy for treatment with Cannabis
– Ketamine for Depression: A pill for all pains?
– An fMRI investigation into the acute effects of MDMA administration in chronic, treatment resistant PTSD
– A mixed method investigation of Ayahuasca ceremonies as a candidate therapy for Bipolar Disorder and Cyclothymia
– Your Human Rights to use Psychedelics
– Dealing with powerful, difficult, emotionally intense experiences in the context of Psycholytic Therapy
– Psychonauts going Psychonuts
– Criminals and Researchers: Perspectives on the necessity of underground research
– Psychedelic Therapy: Notes from the underground
– The real secret of magic: Burroughs, McKenna, and the syntactical nature of reality
– On “Object manipulators”, Psychedelic festivals and the contemporary youth sociopolitical participation
– Entheogens and the emerging Internet of Everything
– Sacred medicine for a secular culture: How to make spiritual experience accessible
– The Psychedelic Shadow

I also had a chance to try out the Discovery Dome. This was an odd, inflatable igloo of sorts which inside was filled with pillows and blankets and projected incredible visualisations and played beautiful music. I had a chance to try out the dome on both the second and third days and saw different “shows” and had a very different reaction to each.

There was also a wealth of beautiful art littering the conference, many workshops and a lot of afterparties and music that I sadly missed in order to pace myself but I have heard were wonderful.

Closing ceremony 

Breaking Convention Blessing

Because I paced myself I did manage to stay until the end of the last day and attend the closing ceremony which was unlike anything I have ever experienced as we were lucky enough to gather to meet Mara’akame Paritemai, a renowned and well respected medicine man and healer who closed the conference with a blessing.

Conclusions

I consider myself so lucky to have had the chance to attend Breaking Convention 2015, I met so many incredible people doing groundbreaking work, I felt so welcomed and comfortable and I learnt a lot along the way.

The venue itself, the University of Greenwich was gorgeous and we were very lucky with the weather for the majority of the weekend:

No filter, it genuinely is this beautiful!

No filter, it genuinely is this beautiful!

I would definitely recommend the conference to anyone that has an interest in Psychedelics, Mental Health, Wellbeing, Drug Reform or just a general curiosity in any of the above.

The only things I’d like to see next year is a bigger presence on social media – although we had 800 attendees we need many more people to join the Scientific Drug Research cause. Also as much as it is an academic conference and that should remain the focus I would love to hear from more of the study participants – the actual users of Psychedelics who can talk about their own experiences.

I also found that parts of the conference brought up a lot of emotions for me, mostly anger at our ridiculous government and it’s continued wilful ignorance and dismissal of scientific evidence and my own sadness that I have used Mental Health services for 12 years, tried over 20 psychiatric medications most with awful side effects and yet something that could really help me would make me a criminal.

But that’s for another post..

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EHI Live 2013

Last week was a busy one, i was at EHI Live 2013 in Birmingham on Tuesday and Wednesday and wisely for once chose to take the rest of the week as leave to recover: i predict many of you that know me just fell off your chairs reading that last part!

I was one of the speakers at the HANDI Health App conference as part of EHI Live 2013 and it was a great experience and quite unlike most big events i’ve been too in the past.

Live-and-HANDI-logos

Now this is really silly but i must confess that at first i had no idea what i was signing up for. I was approached by Ewan Davis to speak at HANDI Health about my experience of working on the WellHappy app. I’m always more than happy to talk about the app (in fact you try and stop me!) so i quickly said yes.

It was only after i said yes and got some more details that i realised i was going to be speaking at EHI, one of the biggest health/tech events in the calendar!

It was nice to know that i was going to be in good company, i found out early on that Sarah Amani who i met in person for the first time recently at the IAYMH Conference in Brighton was speaking the day after me about developing the “My Journey” Early Intervention in Psychosis app. I was also going to get the chance to meet up with an old VIK friend Mark who i don’t get to see often now that the project has ended.

The first person i ran into at the event in fact was Geraldine Strathdee, the National Clinical Director for Mental Health in the NHS & Royal College of Psychiatrist award winner. I had been so busy preparing for my part of EHI that i didn’t even realise there was also a workstream dedicated to Mental Health Informatics.

Being the massive nerd that i am i ended up attending a talk and one of the workshops on mental health informatics and in particular the Mental Health Minimum Data Set produced by the Health & Social Care Information Centre. I won’t go on about this bit as i know it’s niche but if this is your area i strongly recommend you read into the minimum data set. It’s where we get much of our mental health statistics and is only going to grow in terms of the amount of data and it’s importance.

Overall the event was very interesting, a lot more tech based than most of the events i attend so i definitely feel i learnt a lot that i probably wouldn’t have otherwise. It was also a chance to check out some really innovative things like a 3D Printer being used to make artificial limbs and a game you can play with eye movement detection-so completely hands free!

I will leave you with a slightly more off the wall note..the conference was also a good excuse for silly free things..apparently stress balls are out and odd animals are in. I’ve been picking up these oddball things for years now and these are the new additions to what i jokingly call my stress farm! I also have a telephone, sheep, cow and a stress pizza of all things knocking around somewhere..

Yes i know i have weird hobbies..

Yes i know i have weird hobbies..

My run in with the Scientology Anti-Psychiatry movement

Something happened at the conference this week that i need to talk about. It’s not the most positive thing which is perhaps why it stood out so much, and to me in particular. The conference itself was fantastic, i cannot express how much i got out of it.

Unfortunately we had some unwelcome visitors.

We had Scientologists.

Well okay not full blown Xenu worshipping Scientologists but rather members of the anti-psychiatry movement set up by them and Thomas Szasz. The ironically named Citizens Commission of Human Rights.

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Thomas Szasz was a psychiatrist that believed that mental illness doesn’t exist and had some very strong views on the matter. As a psychology undergraduate i had a lecturer who was a big fan of Szasz and i remember leaving those classes shaking with anger after long arguments. Eventually i complained to another lecturer who managed to get him to tone down his classes-obviously he was unaware that several of his students were struggling with some pretty heavy mental health issues (20% of students experience depression so no surprise). The last thing we needed or wanted to hear was that mental illness didn’t exist and it was very distressing for me in particular as someone who has a long, painful history of mental health problems.

This may sound oxymoronic but i’m quite a lucky crazy person. I am out of the mental health closet to just about everyone and am lucky enough to have the support of a wonderful partner, my family, friends and my place of work.

I have worked with YoungMinds, the NHS, The Royal College of Psychiatrists and many more and have an incredible platform to speak out about young people’s mental health-the conference this week is a great example.

It’s not that i forget that stigma exists, god no. I still experience it from time to time, i have done in the past too. I’ve seen the devastating effects in friends and family and i know that stigma is a big part of the reason that 70% of people with a mental health problem don’t get treatment.

But perhaps i live in a bit of a bubble. I forget sometimes that some people don’t even believe mental illness exists. That blows my mind to be honest both as a service user, a professional and as a human being.

So the conference was going well. A meeting of like minded people from across the world. We came together to find solutions and to try and help young people.

Someone clearly didn’t get that message to the CCHR.

So they turn up, thankfully get barricaded by security at the Brighton Dome (you guys were wonderful, thankyou) and start shouting.

A really rubbish photo-i wasn't meant to be taking one at all!

A really rubbish photo-i wasn’t meant to be taking one at all!

To sum up briefly their arguments:

  • Mental illness doesn’t exist
  • Children do NOT get mental health problems
  • Psychiatry is just about drugging children and turning them into zombies.

When they turned up at first there were just three of them, i approached them, the acronym (CCHR) on their tshirts was familiar but i couldn’t remember why.

Me: “Hi, where are you from then?”
Them: “We’re from the CCHR, we’re here to protest this conference”

We had a remarkably civil conversation. They stated their views. I countered every point they gave with statistics and my own experiences.

Them: “We don’t believe that mental illness exists, these people are drugging children and turning them into zombies. Where is the evidence?”

I calmly disagreed.

Me: “I’m sorry but i can’t agree. You see i was a mentally ill child. I had problems from the age of 6. I didn’t get treatment until i was 14 and i did have medication but i had to fight for it and you know what some of it helped”

I went to walk off and then stopped dead in my tracks. Something had clicked. I suddenly knew where i had heard that acronym before.

Me: “You’re not Scientologists are you?”
Them: “Well no. Our organiation was set up by Scientology and Thomas Szasz”.
Me: “Ahh i see”

And i walked off.

Then the others arrived and there were a lot of them. They shouted at the delegates, hurling abuse. They chanted “we don’t need n o thought control” and other slogans and intimidated everyone including the young people attending the conference.

I went back into the building to warn my friends not to go outside and promptly had a bit of a breakdown.

I ended up upstairs in the chill out area shaking uncontrollably and close to tears.

“How dare they?” i asked. How dare they question and dismiss my pain? How dare they tell me that the last 18 years of my illness didn’t happen.

Also, how misguided they are. I was at the conference for three days. Not ONE talk was pro-medication or pro-restraint. We talked about using technology to help young people, about participation and co-production.

My favourite moment however was this:

I went outside to get away from the protest and went for a cigarette with a friend. As we walked back my confidence surged. I wasn’t going to take this any more.

I saw two children standing apart from the protest. They can’t have been more than 10 years old and they were chanting the same ridiculous slogans as the adults. Something about this really struck me. These were the children we may end up helping in the future. They deserve better than Scientology’s lies.

I walked up to a young boy, put my hand on his shoulder and said to him

“You know, you should check out the YoungMinds website when you get home. They will educate you better than these people will”

And walked off.

The crowd was furious and started shouting at me, demanding to know what i had said. I held my head high and walked past back into the conference and didn’t look back.

Risk, resilience and young people online

A few weeks ago i attended two conferences on how young people use the internet and the risks and opportunities involved. Both were fantastic experiences and i not only enjoyed attending the conferences and hearing from young people and practitioners around the country but also presenting to such fantastic audiences.

Munch, Poke, Ping

The first conference, “Munch Poke Ping”, was hosted by Stephen Carrick-Davies and was something i had been looking forward to for a long time given that the subject matter was so intertwined with my own experiences and work. Originally i had asked Stephen, who i met through Katie Bacon of Online Youth Outreach, if i could attend. This led to me not only attending but also presenting at the conference about my own experiences of using the internet as a therapeutic tool, the positive power of peer support and the work i am doing currently with YoungMinds and MyHealthLondon.

The conference was attended by professionals working with children and young people from a variety of perspectives including teachers, support workers, youth workers, psychologists and others and the line up on the stage was just as varied as the audience itself.

Among the line up were speakers from PRUs including pupils, staff and a headteacher as well as Online Youth Outreach, Blackberry and Dr.Richard Graham who works with young people with technology addictions.

Although i am well versed in public speaking this event, for me, was a little daunting as it was my first foray into speaking as a professional and not just a “young person” or “service user” (the labels normally attributed to me). However as soon as i had a microphone in front of me i was fine! (Something that i imagine would shock those who went to school with me where i was known for being quiet and anything but happy about standing up in front of large groups of people).

After a somewhat dark session in the morning looking at grooming i spoke about the positive effect of the internet and how i believe it has helped me and helped me help others over the years. I did this through talking about my own experiences of mental illness and using and running support groups and forums online. I wanted to stress that not everything that happens on the internet is bad or untoward and that actually thousands of young people are helped every day by the peer support they receive online.

I have noticed that professionals, when considering young people and their internet use (especially “vulnerable” young people), find it very hard to see beyond one thing. Risk.

This means that projects are often slowed down or more likely not even considered, I hear a lot of fear and dismissal of service user involvement and participation let alone the concept of peer support within this.

My answer? Yes there are risks involved in going online, and yes some people are more “vulnerable” than others, however there is risk inherent in all areas of life. Risk is a fact of life and people will do “risky” things regardless, you may not be able to stop it but imagine the effect it would have if you could at least help manage and minimise it.

The ban and block  culture and our fear of the worst case scenario paralyses us and certainly does not move us forward.

 

And while bigger organisations are pondering all the worst case scenarios of having even, say, a pre-moderated, closed forum for service users, service users like me have been doing this for a decade now.

And i understand the fear that exists, believe me. I understand the fear of lawsuits and Daily Mail fodder but please bear in mind it can be done, and done well.

It’s not about trying to making risk obsolete, it’s about building resilience, educating young people and providing support; just check out what the Cybermentors do.

There are safeguarding measures that you can put in place, so many i wouldn’t know where to start..and do you know what? A lot of them are common sense! Like not giving out personal details online, just like you shouldn’t give them to a stranger in the street.

I’m sure most young people would tell you too that we don’t want to be wrapped in cotton wool and actually we need to learn by experience.

Personally i doubt exactly where i would be today without the peer support i have and currently still get online, i don’t imagine it would be a good place.

It has been a part of my life for around ten years now including before, during and after more conventional psychological help. Yes the help that i was receiving wasn’t from someone qualified in any paper-based way but i was fully aware of that going in. Not only that but the support was free and, unlike most mental health services, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A stark contrast to most service provision which operate on a strictly 9-5 basis (with a few exceptions of course). No two year waiting lists in sight either..

I don’t blame the services. I understand the pressure they are under, it was pretty bad ten years ago and with the brutal cuts to the NHS things aren’t looking too good here on the ground right now.

Peer support should be encouraged, as a grass roots movement of sorts it already wields immense power and touches and enhances the lives of thousands. Just look at the hit counts on websites that are already doing it. And look at how successful ChildLine and Beat Bullying for great examples of how to reach out online.

It was amazing to be given a platform to speak about something that is so important to me both personally and professionally. It is the reason that with YoungMinds and MyHealthLondon i am developing an app and website to help young people who need support.

I met some incredibly interesting people throughout the day and the conversation continued both at the conference and on twitter (#mpp #munchpokeping).

The day after was a conference run by YoungMinds and ACAMH titled “Young people in the internet wilderness: a ticking time bomb?”,  my next post will be coming shortly!

Never a dull moment in mental health..

Not that i ever have anything that resembles a “quiet” week but next week is looking especially busy so i thought i would give you a little warning as to what’s coming up. And first a bit about what i have been up to so far this week.

This week:

On Tuesday I was lucky enough to meet up with Wedge and Jules from LifeSIGNS at the Tate Modern to talk about blogging, mental health and online peer support. As a long time user of their message boards and a big fan of their work it is really exciting to be working with them. 

I visited the counselling service Open Door in North London to talk about the app i’m working on and the work that they do with young people. One of my favourite parts of the project i am working on is that i am lucky enough to go and visit these incredible grassroots organisations in person and really get a feel for how they work.

And now next week..

On Monday i will be speaking at Munch, Poke Ping, a national conference about social media and vulnerable young people. 

This is followed by a conference on Tuesday run by YoungMinds and the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health “Young People in the Internet Wilderness: A Psychological Time Bomb?” which will look at the opportunities and threats faced by young people in the digital age.

At both conferences i will be talking both about my own experiences of using the internet as a therapeutic tool and the work that i am now doing with YoungMinds and MyHealthLondon, developing an app for young people living in London to help them find help when they need it.

This is followed on the Saturday by the last VIK day of the year, i can’t believe how fast this year has flown by and how much we have achieved as a project!

Really looking forward to both of the events, both presenting and listening to the fascinating speakers that are lined up for both days. I will be blogging about both of these events so watch this space!