Is there an answer to "what do you do?" that is capable of transfixing everyone? There is, and James has it.
A Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Clinical Lecturer, he is at the forefront of pioneering research into the effects of psychoactive drugs on our minds. James is organising clinical trials with novel drugs such as the active ingredient of magic mushrooms (psilocybin) at King's College London. His research pushes all cultural, political and medical boundaries, and has potentially farflung implications for our collective and individual health.
Why do you do what you do?
A mixture of reasons.
Firstly, I have always been fascinated by the brain and its capacity to mediate our experience and behaviour. That we can use drugs to modulate our experience is, I think, a gift not dissimilar to the microscope to a biologist.
Secondly, I have suffered from depression in the past and know what a living hell it is. I am lucky, because the treatments we already have work well for me, but I see so many people for whom they do not work. This motivates me to find new ways to help. Of course, psychedelics are not new therapies. But, due to a sociopolitical sleight of hand back in 1967, here we are investigating them today as though they are new.
Thirdly, I’m interested in how people think about the concept of mental and emotional health and how society and upbringing affect that. Much depends on how we’re taught to think when we’re young.
Fourthly, I’m interested in the process of how we 'change our minds' and 'shift perspectives’ as we move through life. Some mental health difficulties, to me, seem to be problems of shifting perspective.
All of the above plays into a complex biological, psychological and social process that our lives all are, and which the idea of mental and emotional health revolves around. But in the end it’s really just a fascination with (and a passion for) the nature of our shared humanity and our shared experience that’s the reason I do what I do.
What do you think helps make you good at what you do?
Others comment on my tendency towards being calm, equipoised and non-judgemental. I don’t know if I really am, but you do encounter some very emotionally, morally and ethically challenging situations in psychiatry.
Oftentimes, I have found the best therapy is simply being a calm and empathic presence in an emotional maelstrom. The art of being able to listen so that someone feels heard is not often appreciated in a ‘target’ driven healthcare culture. And yet it is so valuable. We all need to be heard.
What piece of advice has most influenced or assisted you recently?
Probably Professor Allan Young telling me that I needed to very ‘zen’ when it comes to organising clinical trials.
Clinical trials are (necessarily) very tightly regulated. This results in a level of bureaucracy that is way beyond what I have experienced, even in the NHS. But it is there for a reason - to protect the public by ensuring we develop new treatments in a way that can provide basic, good quality evidence about whether they are A) safe and B) effective. It takes years and hundreds of millions of pounds for every drug treatment that’s developed. So, with psilocybin we are in for a long haul. But it’s great fun (and very interesting) trying!
How could The Hot Breakfast community help or support you or your organisation?
We need to fundraise the next steps in our research, which will include a crowdfunding drive. The more exposure we have for that, the better. We need to understand more how the context of a psilocybin experience changes the outcome. We need to understand more how psilocybin is working biologically in the body and brain. That requires people, patients, trials, samples, expertise and infrastructure.
It all costs money. We have the infrastructure, expertise, patients and trials at King’s. What we need is research assistants, clinical psychologists, PhD students and post doctoral researchers to lead the next phase of our work, and The Hot Breakfast community to spread news of our work beyond the usual academic and clinical circles.
What's your breakfast of choice?
Porridge. Usually with frozen blueberries. Sometimes I spice it up if it’s getting too monotonous. And coffee.
I’m generally paid up to the idea that oats are an all-round goodie and having them for breakfast every day is a form of respect to the intricate and beautiful biological machine all our bodies are, and which great institutions like King’s College London strive to understand for the benefit of us all.