Ben Sessa: “Psychedelic experience is like going to the gym for the brain.”

„It is only a transient escape, but a vital one. One that allows the individual to see a new way, a new possibility of living one’s life and one’s relationship towards others.“

Dr Ben Sessa is a child psychiatrist well-known for his research on psychedelics. He is advocating the inclusion of psychedelics into psychiatry. He is currently running the UK’s first ever clinical MDMA study, where MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is used for treatment of alcohol addiction.

At Beyond Psychedelics 2018 conference he will present on:

Child Abuse, Trauma, MDMA Therapy and the Future of Medicine.

How do you feel about the current situation around psychedelics?

Very positive. After years in the wilderness the subject is now becoming more mainstream and acceptable. This is great for both recreational psychedelic users, those seeking spiritual emergence and also, crucially (for my work) those patients who could benefit from the clinical uses of psychedelic drugs.

What do you consider to be the biggest challenges of the current psychedelic movement?

Dissemination of the positive ideas to the doubting public. This means avoiding ‘preaching to the converted’, which means making psychedelics more accessible to all, which means breaking down the barriers of past stereotypes. We – the hippies! – obviously ‘get it’, but if we are to truly see these wonderful chemicals playing a more broad and positive role for the future of humanity we need to find a language to speak about them that everyone can get. This (in my opinion) probably means we need to shed some of the past, old pseudoscience stuff that turns most non-hippie people off; e,g, chakras, energy healing, crop circles and UFOs. I know many in the psychedelic community would disagree with me here….

Do you think psychedelic experience (and/or altered state of consciousness induced by other means) should be compulsory part of training for mental health professionals?

Yes. Once the drugs become licensed it would be a necessary part of the medical education curriculum to include teaching about the substances.

How do you envision the ideal society in terms of psychoactive substances and altered states of consciousness?

I envisage a global network of psychedelic treatment centres where both clinical and non-clinical populations can access psychedelic therapies and communal psychedelic experiences. The centres would also encompass all aspects of holistic physical and mental healthcare, including teaching about good diet, exercise, lifestyle changes, eco-issues and other activities to increase communal cohesive and connectivity between people. Sounds pretty hippie, doesn’t it? But, in my version of this future, it will all be underpinned by good scientific methodology and evidence-based practice. I don’t see much room for unicorn milk here!

Dr Ben Sessa at Beyond Psychedelics 2018.

What do you consider to be the greatest benefit of psychedelics?

The opportunity to provide the rigid human brain/mind with a brief holiday away from those ingrained narratives about oneself and one’s world. It is only a transient escape, but a vital one. One that allows the individual to see a new way, a new possibility of living one’s life and one’s relationship towards others. This is very valuable. I consider the psychedelic experience to be like ‘going to the gym for the brain’. When psychedelics are taken responsibly, with careful planning and appropriate guidance the experience is profoundly important. This is beneficial for both clinical and non-clinical populations.

Which is your favorite psychedelic substance and why?

Currently, MDMA, as it is the focus of our current study in the UK. MDMA has a most unique and remarkable psychopharmacological characteristic: the ability to selectively impair the fear response whilst leaving the other faculties intact. As a tool to assist trauma-focused psychotherapy this is quite special. The fear of experiencing severe affect dysregulation that usually accompanies recall of painful emotional memories (especially those associated with past experiences of child abuse) is a major barrier to patients who wish to progress in psychotherapy. As a result they avoid ever going there. They use substances (particularly opiates and alcohol) to block out the memories and they can never engage in therapy. But with MDMA on board, in a controlled clinical setting with therapists they have come to trust, they CAN go there. They can begin the process of tackling their past traumatic memories head on. This is a truly transformative tool for psychiatry.

Since your own personal experience plays a big role, would you be open to sharing some of your own psychedelic experiences – which were the most beneficial / harmful / strange for you?

Many! Ask me later!