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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My treatment isn’t NICE (approved)

My treatment isn’t approved by NICE, The National Institute For Clinical Excellence (and that’s OK with me).

Over the last few years there has been a revolution in the way we view, commission and use mental health services in the UK. One of the biggest changes is a push towards providing purely evidence based treatment. These days if you have a product or treatment for mental health and you are trying to break into the NHS market I can guarantee that one of the very first questions you will be asked is “where is your evidence base”.
Is this enough evidence for you?

Is this enough evidence for you?

Despite the title of this blog I do mostly agree with this approach. For most of it’s history our mental health services, in terms of size, access and treatment offered, have been haphazard at best, often based on gut instinct and previous experience rather than data and scientific evidence, mostly because we don’t have enough of either. This has resulted in a landscape that is incredibly difficult to navigate, not just for service users like myself but also for families, friends, other sectors and even the clinicians and commissioners. Worst of all it has resulted in a postcode lottery of services, which if youre lucky you win but all too often means that people do not receive the best care possible..or in some cases any care at all.

As you know I have used NHS mental health services on and off for twelve years now and have experienced four distinctly different services in three geographical locations. It was only after my most recent referral to mental health services since moving back to my home town last year that I realised not only the real extent of the postcode lottery but also truly felt the personal knock on effects.

Sorry you haven't won, better luck next time.

Sorry you haven’t won, better luck next time.

To paint a picture..

When referred to my new trust I received a phone call within a week from a lovely man who immediately apologised that i would have to wait 6 weeks for an assessment. I tried to choke back laughter as he was so apologetic about a time that for me, with my previous experiences, seemed almost miraculous. After having the assessment I was immediately given a care co-ordinator (the same woman that assessed me). She once again apologised and said that it would be 3 months until I could start treatment. In the meantime I was contacted by another branch of the service who offered me 29 sessions of group therapy for 2.5 hours each week to “tide me over” until the 40 sessions of individual treatment started – probably the most treatment I’ve ever been offered by a service.

Flash back a few years and one county over I had a very different experience. I was referred to the same type of mental health team, I then spent 13 months (yes, over a year) waiting for an assessment while both my physical and mental health deteriorated. When I was finally seen i was told that they could only provide minimal support and that (direct quote) what I needed (i.e. more than 12 sessions) was “not available on the NHS at the moment”. We considered putting me on the waiting list (at least another year long) for treatment but decided against it because, due to a reorganisation in the trust they weren’t sure if the service I was waiting for would even exist by the time I got there. It felt a bit like stepping onto an escalator that you know may have nothing at the top.

But back to my initial statement, what is this non-NICE approved treatment and why don’t I care that it comes without this gold stamp of approval? Especially given my dedication to improving mental health care in this country.

Well the group therapy I recently started is called RODBT..I must admit its actually so new that even I hadn’t heard of it, and with my background that’s surprising. It stands for Radically Open Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (quite the mouthful) and is a form of What is DBT which has been developed to help people like me with chronic Depression and Anorexia. It is being used in some other countries and all early stage research is very positive however it is not far enough down the evaluation line to have the coveted NICE approval.

I’d never had group therapy before now so I really wasn’t sure what to expect and it turns out neither did the clinicians as this is the first time they have ever delivered these new sessions.
Welcome to the guinea pig club.

They stated in the first session to us all that we would have to sign a consent form to say we understood that this was NOT NICE APPROVED TREATMENT. Given what I said in the first paragraph you might have expected me to run a mile after hearing this and not sign the form, after all were told time and time again how important it is for treatment to be evidence based. In fact I was quite relived.

You see a NICE guideline may be the gold standard but because of that NICE also have to do a lot of research and be very thorough. It actually takes on average two years to rewrite a NICE guideline, let alone write one from scratch, and like randomised control trials (RCT) it may be the gold standard but it’s (by its very nature) quite removed from the realities of creating and trialling any new treatment or product. Certainly it’s a barrier we come across frequently in the digital mental health world.

Now for me as a patient, obviously I want good care, I want to have faith and confidence in the treatment I am receiving but I don’t particularly want to wait two or more years. Maybe some will see that as selfish or impatient but I’ve been ill with this particular condition for 13 years now, exactly half of my life and quite frankly I can do without another two years of the pain and suffering this disease causes. Not just to me in terms of my mental and physical health but also for the sake of my partner, my family, friends, employer and colleagues who have to deal with the fallout and pick up the pieces in the meantime.

I also don’t mind being a guinea pig, if it works then I will be ecstatic and maybe I can have a bit of my life back from the monster in my head. And if it doesn’t turn out so well then at least we tried, got some evidence and it can either be shelved or better, tweaked, so that the next group have an even more helpful experience.

So in conclusion, generally speaking evidenced based treatment is a very good thing. We need more of it. However getting more evidence bases involves conducting a lot of ongoing, extensive and time consuming research and so care cannot be put on hold during this time. We need to make sure that “evidence base” isn’t used as a barrier to buying new products or services and that people can still receive good quality care even if it doesn’t have a golden seal of approval just right yet.

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If you’d like to learn more about the move towards evidenced based treatment I’d recommend checking out the work of the Evidence Based Practice Unit (EBPU) which is run by University College London and the Anna Freud Centre.