Monday, 22 December 2014

LSD: A dying wish to cure fear

This is my entry for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014 (in association with the Guardian and the Observer). It made the 20-strong shortlist from over 600 entries. The entire shortlist and the winning entries can be found here.

“Try LSD 100 intramuscular,” read the note passed to Laura Huxley by her dying husband. And so the wife of author Aldous Huxley injected him with the powerful psychedelic lysergic acid diethylamide. He died five hours later on 22 November 1963, his face an expression of “complete bliss and love”.

Before it was banned in 1968, a thousand clinical studies were conducted on LSD, demonstrating its use in treatment for conditions including alcoholism, depression and neurosis. For the next four decades, no further LSD psychotherapy research was published. Until now.

The California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) published a study in March 2014 investigating the effects of LSD on anxiety related to advanced-stage illness. In a small trial, 12 patients were given LSD before two psychotherapy sessions. The results of this pilot study show a reduction in anxiety levels, and, according to MAPS founder Rick Doblin, justify further investigation. Speaking to the Independent, Swiss-based lead researcher Peter Gasser confirmed that the beneficial effects of the treatment were stable over time and that no patients experienced “noteworthy adverse effects”.

 UK-based psychiatrist Dr Ben Sessa hopes the research will lead to LSD treatment not just for patients with terminal illness but “across the board for people of all ages with anxiety disorders. Existing treatments mask symptoms and can be lifelong. Psychedelic therapy would be a single treatment – it could treat anxiety disorder so it doesn’t return.”
Peter, a 50-year-old Austrian social worker, described his treatment in the MAPS press release: “My LSD experience brought back… a timeless moment when the universe didn’t seem like a trap, but like a revelation of utter beauty.” Sessa explains: “The psychedelic experience is particularly wellattuned to the existential issues of death and dying – there is something about psychedelics that connects people with the other-worldliness of death.”

 Doblin said research by MAPS has not focused on the mechanism, since they only need to demonstrate it works safely, not how it works, to get LSD approved as a medicine. This study builds on a foundation of research that began in the 1960s at Spring Grove State Hospital, Baltimore, where psychiatrist Stanislav Grof pioneered the use of LSD to treat fear of dying. This was cut short when LSD was criminalised in 1968, a move that Doblin suggests was due to the drug’s use by anti-establishment hippies and anti-Vietnam War groups. 

Naturally, there are concerns over the danger of using a class A illegal drug as a medicine. “There's an enormous amount of research that demonstrates LSD is physiologically safe,” says Doblin. MAPS Director of Development Virginia Wright says that due to LSD’s bad reputation, US researchers were unwilling to carry out the current study despite its approval by the US Food and Drug Administration. The trial took place in Switzerland, where there is more openness and interest in LSD research, not least because it was discovered there in 1938 by chemist Albert Hofmann. Nevertheless, when the trial was approved in 2008, the Swiss People’s Party (the largest in the country) told Bloomberg that if international experts come to the conclusion that LSD could be seen as a medication, “we would have another look at the situation. But for the moment our position is still a conservative one.”

To gain approval, there needs to be a much bigger study with a range of different patients to demonstrate wider efficacy. But this requires money – potentially tens of thousands of pounds. Drug development is often funded by pharmaceutical companies, and according to Sessa, these companies are unwilling to sponsor the process of bringing LSD to market. Since LSD might only be used once or twice in therapy, profit from drug sales would be limited. LSD’s reputation means public funding is scarce – MAPS relies on donations from individuals and charities. But, says Doblin, “So far no major foundation that supports medical research has funded psychedelic research.”

At the time of writing, MAPS does not have funding for further LSD research. But other psychiatric research is making this type of work more commonplace – a study on ketamine and a Medical Research Council-funded investigation into magic mushrooms are both exploring effects on depression. As the stigma around illegal drug research lessens and red tape is removed, more studies may yet convince regulators to put LSD on the NHS.

Written by Louise Crane
Edited by Mun-Keat Looi

Monday, 1 December 2014

Please donate £5 to stop suicide

I am making one last plea for donations to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). I've been trying to raise awareness of this suicide prevention charity since I stopped drinking for a month in October.

I know how often you are all asked to donate to charity. I know you are fed up of people seeking attention for so-called hardships in return for money for a charity to which they might not even have a connection.

My brother hanged himself on the 19th April 2007. I will never, ever forget my mum's words on the phone: "The inevitable's happened. Paul's gone. He's gone."

No suicide should be inevitable. Suicide kills more men aged 20-49 in England & Wales than anything else: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, road traffic accidents. And for every 1 person who kills themselves there are 20 more attempted suicides.

Please, please, take a packed lunch into work tomorrow, forego a drink at the bar on Friday, and donate £5 to the Campaign Against Living Miserably, who work long into the night every night as a solace for people who have decided they don't want to live any more.

CALM could have helped Paul if he'd called, and can help the other tens of thousands of men who contemplate suicide every year.

I don't want any more sisters, mothers, fathers and brothers to go through what I did. The grief drove me to the deepest depth of despair and it nearly killed my mum. No parent should have to bury their child.

Please help CALM provide a lifeline to people struggling with suicidal thoughts.

From their website:

We seek to prevent male suicide by:-
  • Offering support to men in the UK, of any age, who are down or in crisis via our helpline and website. 
  • Challenging a culture that prevents men seeking help when they need it, see
  • Pushing for changes in policy and practice so that suicide is better prevented via partnerships such as The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities (TASC), the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA). 
  • CALM also hosts the Suicide Bereavement Support Partnership, (which includes Cruse, If U Care Share, Papyrus, SoBS and the Samaritans amongst others). This partnership aims to ensure that everyone bereaved or affected by suicide is offered and receives timely and appropriate support. Its members are working collaboratively to ensure this vision becomes a reality.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

31* days sober for suicide

This month I gave up drinking alcohol for the sake of a very important cause. Suicide kills more men aged 20-49 in England and Wales than anything else. The Campaign Against Living Miserably was set up to reduce this tragic problem, by providing a confidential, accessible phone line for people to ring up in times of crisis, as well as other resources. 

Please donate to them. CALM costs money to run, and right now CALM does not have enough money to operate as it wishes. For example, its phone line is only open from 5pm - midnight.

Giving up alcohol has given me an excuse to talk about this. It's a hook, I'm not looking for you to reward my 'achievement', I just want you to know that suicide is the biggest cause of death to young men and you can help prevent the deaths of people who were far too young to die, like my brother Paul

You might say you don't want to be told where to donate and to whom, but I expect many of you did not know that suicide is the biggest killer of young men or that CALM exists, I am just trying to help raise awareness of them.

Donate through Givey and 100% of your money will go to CALM:

The generosity shown so far has been incredible. Please donate. Even £1 helps.

Thank you,

*I gave myself two nights off where I drank a single glass of wine, for which I forfeited £75 for two 'golden tickets'. I am also going to donate the money I would have spent on drinking this month... which is quite a lot, whisky is expensive!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

My mum

My mum is 68 this year. You wouldn't know to look at her, but a conversation gives it away. The casual, unthinking racism, the 'make do and mend' attitude inherited a war that ended a year before she was born, the lack of sympathy for anyone with a lesser plight than her. Two near-death experiences, the breech birth of her eight pound twelve ounce eldest son, his suicide 37 years later. You don't forget that, and neither will she.

My mum's childhood was dominated by dolls, two older sisters, and a father who smashed his fists on the table if his steak wasn't ready when he came home from work, from the harbour where those same calloused hands rigged sails for the big yachts. While he twisted ropes, Gran twisted mum's hair into plaits, so all three girls would stand pristine next to a man who looked more like a pirate than a father. When mum's first marriage broke down and she went back to live at the family bungalow, he said, "You've been a nuisance all your life and you're being a nuisance now."

My mum always wanted a daughter. A real, living doll. For a long time, she thought it would never be. Her first two children were boys, named Paul and Jason. They were five and three when her first husband walked out. Paul was held back from starting school in the wake of the divorce, but within months of joining he was reading stories to the class. She says this with such pride, her first born son who looked up at her with such big, beautiful brown eyes after that first traumatic birth. And with the same pride she tells how she attended night school in order to give her little sons a better chance in life.

A single mother for five years, she married my dad in 1979. He was the "tall, dark and handsome" man who crossed the ballroom floor to ask for a dance and who, apparently, never looked back. Paul and Jason wore paige boy suits with flared trousers, Dad sported a thick black moustache that he didn't shave off for another fifteen years. (Around that same time he started going grey. Mum bought him a box of "Just for Men" for his 40th birthday. Tact has never been her strong point.)

This was Mum's new start. A new husband, a new house, a new set of children. Jonathan came first - another traumatic birth that appears in conversation more than you wish it would, the explanation for the scar that runs under her child-bearing midriff. And then, at last, her longed-for daughter. I was born on the 23rd March 1985 at 9.10am, which I'm reminded of every year with a phone call on the dot. When Jason rang the hospital and found out I was a girl, Paul and him danced around the living room.

When I was old enough Mum would put me in pretty pink dresses and brush my golden hair with ribbons and bows but I'd scowl if anyone ever said I looked nice. Not quite the living doll then, but a little girl who wanted to be more like her brothers than the angelic haired princess she appeared to be. Children don't see how much they hurt their parents. I do now.

A month before she turned 41, Mum had my youngest brother, Alexander. She tells us all the only reason she had him was because she wanted another girl. Like I said, tact has never been her strong point.

Jason and Paul left home for university, and five became a trio. Jonathan, Louise and Alexander. Three mouths to feed, three children to love, three children who were lucky enough to have a mum who was there for them every sick day, every day of the school holidays, every meal time. She had worked damn hard in her twenties and when she met a man who could support the whole family, she chose to stay at home. Born a generation or two later she might have been a business woman. She says she was born to be a mother.

Life has a cruel habit of taking away what you cherish the most. Mum had a hysterectomy to remove a fibroid when I was 11, finally taking away the chance of one more child - whose name she had already imagined: Victoria Emma Lucy. When Mum woke up from the operation, she began haemorrhaging internally from inadequate sutures. The surgeons who cut her open needed to operate again, and the nurses were instructed that visitors were banned. White as a ghost but still bloody minded, she demanded that Dad bring me in to see her before she went under. Just me, her only daughter. It's the first memory I have of her saying to me, "I love you." Afterwards, she told me she thought she was going to die.

My mum seems undefeatable. She is one of the strongest people I know (yet, at five feet nothing and seven stone three, one of the smallest). She goes to the gym five days a week, she runs for miles, swims, cleans the house, cooks the dinner, wakes up, goes to aerobics, runs for miles, swims, cleans the house, cooks the dinner... she's also pretty compulsive. When we lived at home, she would cook the same meal every day each week: chips, beans and sausages Monday (my favourite), roast dinner on a Thursday and Sunday, salad and jacket potato on Saturday (not my favourite). Her apple crumbles are legendary among my family and friends. She wins the pub quiz more often than not and when she doesn't she beats herself up until she wins it again.

When my brother died her adrenal glands stopped working and she spent two weeks in bed with increasingly worsening muscle cramps, until she was admitted to hospital and hooked up to diamorphine. That's the doctor's name for heroin. She was hours from dying before they worked out what was wrong. I don't know how she lived through the pain of losing her eldest son and I don't know how she didn't give up when her organs started to fail. I don't know how she does what she does every day, or how she found the energy to go to night school and raise two boys while doing a job at an age younger than I am now and I can't do just one of those things without complaining how tired I am.

But more than I don't know, I won't forget how strong she has been for the sake of her family. Happy Mothering Sunday, Mum.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Postcard

From the helicopter
That still nips the psyche
And makes the apes look up,
The shutter clicked
And caught the time
That was to become
The view to be sent
Around the world;
The small town's sum.
An exposure
In more ways than one.
Amidst the pretty
Hanging baskets
More grief
Than might be imagined,
But that's life.
The weather is here,
Wish you were beautiful -
Why come to this town?

Paul Maddocks (26 January 1969 - 19 April 2007)