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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Acceptance speech perhaps?

It’s taken me awhile to put out this first blog of the year. After the literal and figurative madness that sums up the end of 2013 I for some reason naively thought January might be a bit quieter..how wrong I was!

Over the Christmas holidays I was surprised to discover I had been nominated for not one but two awards from Mentally Wealthy. I’m a long time reader of the site and previous iterations such as This Week In Mentalists and have a huge amount of respect for the bloggers involved so I was certainly not expecting to see my own name appear in the nominations!

I came runner up in This Week In Mentalists Award 2013 in “Campaigning” and the Twitter based
Twental Health Awards 2013  in “Professional Not Otherwise Specified”.

Clearly all those teenage years hidden behind a computer screen blogging, moderating and being on social media paid off!-I have of course pointed this out to my parents to show them I didn’t waste my teenage years online! It is still something I have to pinch myself over though. As someone who at points genuinely didn’t expect to see her 16th birthday let alone their 24th it amazes me how far I have come. I’ve said many times before that if I could go back and tell my 14 year old self what things would be like in a decade I would most likely laugh in my own face. I am proof that it can and does get better even if “better” isn’t what you expected or planned.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough (and believe me i was taken aback as it was), Vinspired announced that I was a Regional Winner in their Vinspired National Awards as “Most Outstanding Social Entrepreneur” for my work on the WellHappy app.

This is a huge thing for both myself personally and for the WellHappy project and I am still so stunned that I’ve won.

So I guess I have to do some kind of acceptance speech? Don’t worry i’m not going to sit here for the next 10 pages and bore the pants off you but I do have some people that need to be thanked for their part in this.

YoungMinds

Firstly I need to thank YoungMinds which includes all the young people and staff I have been so fortunate to have in my life these past five years. It’s corny but it’s also fair to say that I could not have done this without you all and you deserve a lot of the credit for this award. Before I started volunteering with the charity I was very much in the mental health “closet”..now I am winning awards for speaking out about mental health & wellbeing. Participation helped me find my voice and campaigning gave me a platform and a purpose and I don’t dare think where I would be now without your support.

NHS

I also want to thank the NHS or more specifically my employers and colleagues within the NHS and in particular at myhealthlondon. When I was brought in to work in the NHS on secondment from YoungMinds for the WellHappy project it was a test, a trial run for 4 months. 15 months later I am still working with you after repeated contract extensions and a promotion. You took a chance on me, knowing full well all of my mental health history and that I was still technically a “young person”. It has been a pleasure having a job where I actually feel accepted and like I am able to do some good and make changes for the better.

And I would also like to say a big thank you to my wonderful friend Jenny Hills for nominating me.

And one last thank you to my long suffering boyfriend Ryan Jackson for putting up with me while i run around like, (once again both a literal & figurative) crazy lady. I certainly couldn’t have done half as much over the past 5 years without your support.

Anyway that is quite enough gushing for me for one day, i’m not sure it suits me! At this point I would probably trip over my feet on the way off stage.

And the thing is, this was only the start of the year and much has happened since then, but that is for another post.

Patients and the public give their views on NHS 7 Day Services

As a mental health service user and an NHS staff member i was recently asked by NHS IQ to give my views on what the effect of not having 7 Day Services has on patients. You can see me and other members of the public and patients giving our views here.

Why participation is important to individuals and organisations: an insider’s view

This is a speech i am giving at an NHS England meeting:

Everyone’s business: Patient engagement, experience and involvement

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My name is Kat and i am the project manager for myhealtlondon’s WellHappy app for young people in the capital.

I’m also a service user and i’ve been using mental health services for about a decade now. When i was 19 i was lucky enough to become involved with the charity YoungMinds as part of their participation project for young service users; the VIK Project. That project has sadly ended now but was a huge part of my life for 4 years.

I came to this event knowing that i would be the only service user (at least openly) and the youngest person here so i’m here to talk to you about a couple of things from my own experiences, especially in relation to youth services & mental health although a lot of what i have to say has much wider applications.

And as much as i am very thankful for the invitation to speak today it doesn’t sit right for me. I’m not special and i am not representative of the areas i campaign around, especially the somewhat catch all group of “young people”. After all how can one person be?

I consider myself to be incredibly privileged to stand here in front of you today and share my experiences with you. But i kind of wish it always me on the stage!

And believe me i’m not the only one out there with an opinion, with things to say. But unfortunately there are still a huge number of barriers in the way of young people actively participating in not only the services they use but their own health.

Some of these barriers are tangible, things like running participation groups at times where young people are not able to attend, but a lot of them are more insidious, they are part of a culture which i believe needs to change.

It’s a problem that is widespread and not just applicable to health services. Young people are all too often  dismissed as being apathetic and disengaged with nothing worth saying. We’re told our exams are getting easier and we’re getting stupider and fatter.

And the media is full of awful depictions of the worst side of a very small number of young people. I work with a lot of young people from Tottenham and the surrounding area who live in the areas worst affected by the riots a few years ago. They speak of their despair at the way young people were targeted by the media. Never mind that some of the looters and vandals were grown adults, there was even a teacher in there! All the focus was on them.

In fact a whopping 76% of all press coverage on young people is negative and a shocking 39% of adults cannot not think of a single positive thing that young people do.

Not surprising then that surveys have shown that 1 in 4 adults would cross the street to avoid young people

And if you were a young person why would you want to engage with people who had so clearly written you off before they had even met you?

This is a dangerous state of affairs when we know how incredibly important prevention and early intervention are. But would you trust official figures like politicians and police or even feel comfortable talking to your GP expecting to meet this level of prejudice?

And how as a clinician or a service are you supposed to engage with people who are actively trying to avoid you because of this? It creates a very damaging “us” and “them” culture and shuts down potential dialogues.

It becomes very easy to only engage with the loudest, most active young people who come to you. Easy to ignore the hard to reach groups, for example young men and the BME community are hugely underrepresented in mental health participation circles. And the problem with this is, yes it’s great that you’re engaging service users, but you’re still only consulting a tiny and not representative group. The more people you consult the more points of view you have and the more likely that changes will be made for the common good and not just the perceived good.

And is such a shame because participation can change lives, i’m a perfect example.

Being a young person and a service user can often leave you feeling a number of less than optimistic things about yourself. You can feel like you don’t have a voice and that your opinion doesn’t matter and will never be heard.

It’s easy to become just another statistic and to begin to feel the way that you are treated by professionals who often label you as “manipulative”, “attention seeking” or a hopeless case.

You can feel like you have no right or ability to make even the most basic decisions about your care and your life in general just because you are young and have mental health problems and this is nonsense.

And it can also be dangerous self-prophesising. If there is no point why bother trying?

I know that before i joined VIK i definitely felt like this. I wanted to make a difference and to help change the mental health system so others wouldn’t have to go through some of the things i have and would have a better standard of care but i didn’t have the faintest idea as to how to go about this and didn’t think it was possible, especially not as an individual.

After all where do you start? How do you get people to listen to you and who should be listening when the government and the NHS are so vast and feel so faceless?

But then due to pure chance i became involved in YoungMinds VIK panel and things started to change for me. It took time, it took at least 6 months before i really understood what participation was and it came as a real surprise to me! I’m allowed to get a second opinion? I’m allowed to ask, i don’t just have to sit there and have things like therapy or medication done to me and i can be an active participant in my care! Let alone actively participation in the design and delivery of services. Or being able to give feedback on government policy that directly affects me.

Unfortunately this all happened long after i had left CAMHS. Funnily enough the reason i left CAMHS was not because i was in any way “better” or “recovered” but because i was jaded, disengaged and no longer saw the point. All dialogue between myself and the team had completely broken down.

Oh and just to point out during my time in CAMHS the closest i got to experiencing participation was once being asked to fill in a small form about how i would like the waiting room to look. This in fact is quite an ongoing annoyance..if i had a pound for everytime i had been asked about a waiting room i would probably not have to work!

So just so you know for the future waiting room decor is not participation, it is tokenism at best!

Thankfully though when i went into adult services i had all this new knowledge at my fingertips and it has, overall been a much better experience. I have the confidence and the knowledge to know when something isn’t right and can now stand up for myself-for me this is HUGE. Not only that i can engage with professionals, we can have honest discussions and make shared decisions. It feels so much better to work in partnership and not just be prescribed to!

You would not recognise me if you met me 5 or 6 years ago. I could barely leave the house, i couldn’t put my hand up in class, i was petrified of public speaking. I had no self worth whatsoever.

YoungMinds have provided me and the other VIKs with some absolutely incredibly opportunities. While i was in CAMHS i never thought that i would, for example, meet politicians, go to government meetings or be able to get my voice heard through national publications and radio programs.

But through VIK all of these things and many others have been possible and it is hugely encouraging and empowering. When we speak at conferences we are often approached afterwards by professionals who are completely taken aback by our ability to present ourselves and our experiences in an eloquent, coherent manner and talk with great passion about what we feel should be done to change the system.

I think this shows that even professionals who deal with young people on a daily basis are often unaware that we are unable to express ourselves or know what is best for us. That is why being a part of VIK was amazing. It gave us a chance to prove people wrong and hopefully change some people’s minds about what it means to be a young service user and what we are capable of.

When i ask young people i come into contact with what they think their rights are in relation to their healthcare, especially mental health care, i get laughed at. In fact most of them don’t even know what their human rights are.

“We have rights?”.

Imagine if we got things right this time. If the experiences i have been lucky enough to have were common practice.  Too often participation is seen by services as a nice add on, a favour to their clientele, it’s an after thought if anything is left in the budget.

Imagine if participation was just part of the process, if we spoke about it at schools and explained why it is important. If we actually taught kids their rights. If we taught them about the services that they could use if they needed it instead of the current system when you only find these things out too late..when you are stuck in the middle of services. It’s a scary place to be when you don’t know what’s happening.

My parents have always said that the worst thing was that they had no knowledge of the mental health system before i got ill. They too felt thrown in the deep end. Unsure of what was happening, what was meant to be happening and what they were allowed to do or say. I’m so glad that because of my experiences, if my kids ever have issues, i will not only know what to do but have the confidence to help them and fight for them if i have to.

If we get things right we could have a group of people, the next generation in fact, who  are health-literate and havethe skills and the support to be empowered, confident enough to take control of their health and their role in services and the desire to change things to make them better instead of the current model i see which is enduring and then escaping services never to return or even think about them again.

It’s a big ask i know but i also know it would be worth it for everyone.

And that is why i make it a priority in all the work that i do to involve as many young people as i can. I want to give as many of them as much of the experience of participation as i did that i can so that they can grow, flourish even and help pave the way for a better, healthier future for everyone.

My WellHappy app launches at Expo

Myhealthlondon attend the Healthcare Innovation Expo

On March 13th and 14th 2013 members of the myhealthlondon team attended the Healthcare Innovation Expo at the Excel Centre in London. We were there to highlight our website, our dementia community and to launch the WellHappy app for young Londoners.

It was also a great opportunity to find out what else is happening in healthcare at the moment and we met lots of interesting new people including service users, clinicians and commissioners. We also bumped into Lord Victor Abedowale, the Chief Executive of Turning Point and had a chat about WellHappy and how some of Turning Point’s services for young people are included.

 

The Appzone and Health Apps Library

One of the main attractions at the Expo was the Appzone which you can see in the pictures below. It was here that the Health Apps Library was launched by the NHS Commissioning Board.

Over the two days of the expo ten brand new, never-before-seen apps were launched including our own.

It was a great opportunity not just in terms of the amazing platform to launch our own app but also to meet other developers, designers and teams involved in app development. We shared a lot of learning on the day and have had lots of interesting conversations since, showing that what happens at Expo doesn’t have to stay there, especially not with the invention of Twitter! It’s great to see so many clinicians embracing social media and using it to help their patients and provide information and insight into the medical world.

You can find out more about the App Zone and Health Apps Library by visiting the site here or by following @healthappslib on Twitter

 

Launching the WellHappy app

 

Kat Cormack, project manager, and Bruce Kynoch, Assistant Stakeholder and Marketing Manager launch the app.

Bruce and I gave a short presentation to the audience in the Appzone to officially launch the WellHappy app. This involved talking about the app, where it came from, whose ideas went into it, who helped us develop it and what it was like working on a project of this kind.

We also gave a quick demonstration to the audience on how to use the app and encouraged people to download it from Google Play or the Apple App Store.

Joining us were colleagues from LivingWellBrightLemon and Digital White, our design and development companies who have been so integral to the making and launching of the WellHappy app. It was great to have their support on the day and to have them around to answer any technical questions people might have.

People also had a chance to try out the app on tablets at the event and give us feedback right there and then. It was great to see people trying out the app, searching for services near them and then going to download it on their own phones! All the feedback we got was incredibly positive and it was good to hear clinicians say how useful even they would find an app like ours!

It just shows that WellHappy can be used by anyone, you don’t need to be a young person to find the information in it useful and if you work with young people, whether you are a youth worker, doctor, nurse or a teacher in London it is worth a look.

 

A little teaser..

My lovely readers, it is only Wednesday and i am already exhausted after two days of running around speaking at conferences and presenting to over 300 delegates. 

I will be blogging about these events of course but in the meantime a little teaser.

This is the conference report from the conference i attended on Tuesday: “Young People in the Internet Wilderness: a psychological time-bomb?”: Dangers and Opportunities of the Internet by YoungMinds.where you can read a little bit about why i was there and about the work of my wonderful VIK colleagues.

 

 

Mapping mental health

Last year young people from organisations including YoungMinds Very Important Kids (VIK) project, Right Here Newham and the Peer Outreach group at the GLA got together to discuss one of the last taboos: mental health, with a particular focus on how it affects them as Londoners. Their work led to the London State of Mind manifesto, a document put forward to advise decision makers about what is important to young Londoners and what improvements they want to see. This was launched last year at city hall and quickly gained cross-party support.

One point is of particular importance and has led to my job being created. Point five, “tell us where we can go when we need to get help”. I am currently working for YoungMinds on secondment to NHS London and we are working on a very exciting project in response to this.

We have decided to develop an app and online space to help young people find out what help is available in their area.

While this started off at looking purely at mental health services we soon realised this wouldn’t be enough. Mental health is not something experienced in isolation, especially for young people, and has large overlaps and affects areas such as relationships, physical health and substance use. Therefore we decided to embark on a somewhat more challenging task: mapping wellbeing services in the capital and helping young people to find them as well as producing materials to support young people along the way.

Just over two weeks in and we have already accomplished a lot. We have begun mapping services and meeting with young people and organisations from all over London. We will continue to engage with as many young people as we can as I believe participation is key to this being a useful and hopefully successful tool.

We want this to be more than just a wellbeing “Yellow pages” and for that we need your experiences and recommendations of services. Your local knowledge and experiences are invaluable to making this work so tell us about anything you think might be of interest that you know about and let us know what services you use.

So what next?

I will be blogging at YoungMinds and at MyHealthLondon on a fortnightly basis, keeping you up to date with what we’re doing and how you can help.

We will be running consultations with young people, the dates aren’t fixed yet but if you’re interested in getting involved please email me at Katherine.Cormack@london.nhs.uk.

Kat Cormack

 Read the full London State of Mind manifesto here.