“What we’re doing with psychedelics is completely rewriting the paradigm of psychiatry and offering people lasting, positive outcomes that existing psychiatric treatments aren’t delivering. To be at the forefront of that is incredibly exciting.”
Awakn Life Sciences’ Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ben Sessa, is thrilled to be making history with the launch of our first-of-its-kind clinic in Bristol, UK.
Ben has been at the cutting edge of psychedelic therapy research for over a decade, along the way authoring three books including 2012’s The Psychedelic Renaissance, which is considered a key work on the subject.
“What we’re developing here are medical protocols to treat mental health disorders with psychedelic drug-assisted therapy,” he resumes. “These are patients with severe disorders that have been unremitting and unmanaged by traditional treatments. Biological psychiatry has been all about firefighting and masking symptoms. You can take an antidepressant and it will lift your mood, but it won’t get to the heart of why you have that low mood. Counselling and psychotherapy are great for a significant number of cases, but there are an equally significant number of instances where they can’t go any further because the patient has deeply rooted defence mechanisms. They’ve become experts at ‘not going there’. What psychedelics offer is an opportunity to break that ‘stuckness’ or barrier, which results in high levels of treatment resistance.”
While Ben and Awakn’s use of MDMA and psilocybin will for the time being be confined to clinical trials, patients will be able to access ketamine-assisted treatments in Bristol straight away.
Keen to demystify the process, Ben explains that, “Ketamine induces an altered state of consciousness which, when honed alongside their supportive psychotherapy course, enables patients to tackle these rigid narratives that are maintaining their mental illness. The treatment protocols involve both drug and non-drug sessions. Typically you’d have the preparation beforehand, then the drug session, then several weeks of integration without the drugs, then another drug session.”
Ben is blunt when asked if psychedelic-assisted therapies signal an end to the Prozac Nation.
“One of the reasons we have a psychedelic renaissance at the moment – I say ‘renaissance’ because the very first psychedelic therapies started in the UK in 1951 – is the recognised lack of efficacy and, indeed, safety of current psychiatric management,” he proffers. “Patients have been sat on Prozac for thirty years and they’re not better. I can’t think of any other branches of medicine that would accept such poor treatment outcomes. Psychiatry has dug itself into a corner of learned helplessness. We’ve almost become used to the idea that we are like palliative care doctors. If you approach a psychiatrist in your early twenties with an anxiety-based disorder such as addiction, PTSD, generalised anxiety or depression due to severe abuse when you were a child, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll still be seeing that psychiatrist in your sixties and seventies, and still on maintenance drugs.”
That, says Ben, is simply not good enough.
“Imagine an orthopedic surgeon or oncologist or immunologist accepting those sorts of outcomes; they just wouldn’t,” he continues. “We’ve almost forgotten the use of the word ‘cure’ in psychiatry. It’s like, ‘Oh sorry, you’ve got this awful PTSD or alcoholism, I’ve got you for life now.’ What we’re saying is, ‘Why shouldn’t we take somebody in their early twenties with a history of child abuse presenting with severe PTSD or alcoholism or heroin addiction and completely, totally, utterly cure them and never have to see them again?’”
In a profession renowned for strong differences of opinion, it’s striking how positively Ben’s fellow clinicians have received psychedelics.
“There’s no reason to take an anti-psychedelics stance unless you don’t understand them at all,” he asserts. “If you look at any of the studies over the last ten years, they’ve all been stupendous. Not just ‘slightly worked’ but ‘blows out the water the current best treatments’. Anyone with an ounce of knowledge on the subject recognises that and is supportive.”
Along with his therapeutic client work, Ben is looking forward to training other practitioners in the use of psychedelics.
“We’re going to be doing two sorts of training – one will be an online module-based course, which anyone can sign up to and collect CPD points as they carry it out,” he explains. “The second will involve the online modules plus face to face tutorial teaching, which will be more for people who are clinicians and want to become psychedelic therapists themselves.”
Ben ends by summing up what patients can expect from attending Awakn’s Bristol clinic, and the ones that will quickly be following in its wake.
“For the first time in their lives it will allow them in a safe, containing and facilitative environment to go to those places and parts of their psyche and self that normal psychotherapy doesn’t allow them to do,” he says. “They can carry out the work, resolve the issues and get better and not have to sit on daily maintenance medication for the rest of their lives to mask symptoms.”