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Peter’s Story: Finding Acceptance, Being Generous And Healing Grief Through Psychedelic Medicines

Psychedelic roof

 

As a young person, I never thought that I would be an Australian. I lived in a country town in England and my family seemed secure and loving (even though relationships between my mother and my father were sometimes strained). Then when I was 13, without any warning, my father committed suicide. He hadn’t let on that his business was failing, and he dealt with the burden of impending bankruptcy by taking his own life. In his letter to my mother, he said that he thought taking his life was for the best. What he didn’t realise was the lifelong damage that he would do to all of us.

My mother was an extraordinary person. In an instant, she had lost her husband, her home, her financial security, and nearly all of her possessions. But she was incredibly determined with lots of inner strength and decided that we should start again by emigrating to Australia. At the time the Australian government paid for virtually everything; a 6-week journey by ship to Australia with my mother paying just 10 pounds (about $20 Australian dollars at the time), and with me coming for free because I was under 16 years of age.

I can remember the ship coming into Sydney Harbour on a beautiful and crisp winter’s morning with the mist rising from the water. I can remember feeling excited by this new country where the light seemed so bright compared to the pastel colours of England and where the buildings in the city seemed so high. I could feel the energy, but I also remember feeling my deep sadness. I felt deeply the loss of my father and nearly everything that I had ever known, my home and my childhood friends.

Looking back, I now realise that I dealt with this sadness by becoming incredibly good at building barriers around my heart; going inwards and working incredibly hard to succeed in my education and in my career. I was lucky to get the chance to go to a great school, which encouraged me to excel, then to go to university (which was then basically free), and then to get a job as a lawyer at a top law firm before moving into investment banking.

As an investment banker, I did far better than I could ever have believed possible. I eventually started my own firm and then sold the firm 10 years later to an American investment banking group. Looking back, I now realise that the hard work, the constant need to achieve, and the financial rewards were all a way of escaping from the pain that I felt deep down. Sadly, this pain prevented me from experiencing the true intimacy in my relationships with other human beings that everyone should have.

As I got older, I started to realise how lucky I had been. I could so easily have taken a different road, unable to cope and spiraled down. Luck gave me an amazing mother with the courage to start again and gave me the intellect, health, and determination to make a go of my new life. But it all came at a cost.

My way of dealing with my sense of luck was to get more and more involved in the not-for-profit sector both as a philanthropist and as an active participant – first going on to Boards and then starting new charities to help disadvantaged people who hadn’t had the luck that I had experienced. By the time that I met my beautiful wife Tania nearly 10 years ago, I had been extensively involved across the not-for-profit sector (particularly in the areas of homelessness and poverty alleviation). I had also started the Northern Beaches Women’s Shelter (with my previous partner) and then Women’s Community Shelters (www.womenscommunityshelters.org.au). The more I dealt with people who were suffering, the more I realised that it could so easily have been me. The only difference was that I had been lucky and they hadn’t been.

About 6 years ago, I can remember Tania getting excited about a Michael Pollan article she read in the New Yorker Magazine, explaining the outstanding trial results that were being achieved by researchers at major universities in the UK and North America using psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy as a cure for key classes of mental illness. I must have been busy on other things at the time because I didn’t immediately get excited about this research, and given the outstanding results being achieved, I should have.

However, Tania is a determined person and a great connector, and she quickly developed relationships with leading overseas researchers in this field. She tried to get us enrolled in trials in London so that we could experience these psychedelic substances, but we didn’t qualify (no mental illness – at least that we know of). Tania didn’t give up though and she found a therapist in Holland (where the therapy is legal) and arranged for us to have a psychedelic experience with psilocybin.

Even then I wasn’t that excited, but I went along because I trusted Tania and this was something that she was obviously passionate about and wanted to try. I had never tried any mind-altering substances (other than alcohol) and I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

I have to say that the experience with psilocybin was “out of this world!” The therapist helped us get into the right mindset and the setting was quiet and peaceful. Then we took the psilocybin-containing mushrooms and for the first 20 minutes, nothing happened. It felt like a bit of a let-down. Eventually, with my eyes covered by an eye mask, lying down, and eyes closed, I started to “see” the amazing psychedelic shapes and colors that people talk about.

Kaleidoscope

I was then transported into another world that was timeless and where I became an observer. The experience is impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t taken the medicine: wondrous, confronting, beautiful, extraordinary, altogether another realm of consciousness.  I came out of the experience changed, as if the blinkers that so many of us hide behind had been removed.

The argument that these substances are addictive is complete nonsense. The experience was so deep and meaningful that it took Tania and I a year before we had a second go, and that was even more powerful.

It was now decision time for us. Tania and I could either keep the experience to ourselves or work towards making these therapies available to everyone who needed them in safe environments with trained therapists. Mind Medicine Australia was born from a deep desire to help make these therapies part of our medical system so that many more Australians suffering from debilitating mental illnesses, like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, could get well and realise the joy of life which should be available to all human beings.

Mind Medicine Australia is a charity because we want to make these therapies – with their incredible remission rates – available to all Australians that need them, irrespective of wealth or where they live. We don’t want a need to make money to get in the way.

So how do I feel now about the impact of these medicines on me and the prospect of making them available to all Australians that need them?

The self-made “protective” barriers around me have fallen away a lot in the last 6 years since my first psychedelic experience, as my capacity for acceptance has grown. My sense of wonder in the beauty of the natural world and all human beings has increased in a profound way. It’s impossible to explain this miracle.

How extraordinary that a molecule that exists naturally in some types of mushrooms locks perfectly into a certain type of receptor in the human brain and causes that person to go inwards into another realm of consciousness and, in doing so, examine the wonder of life and the connectedness of all living things. The medicine has been an amazing gift for Tania and I, and we want this gift to be available to all Australians in need.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about out mental health system. I’ve learned that its full of the most inspiring health practitioners who give of themselves every day. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there is also a huge amount of entrenched thinking, vested interests and hubris shared by some participants in the mental health system, which (despite claims to the contrary) isn’t based on the available science and data and which inhibits positive change, prevents people from getting well, and leads to more suffering.

Mind Medicine Australia continues to make good progress and I am increasingly confident that these therapies will become available for Australians that need them. The big question is how long will this process take? We need to move quickly to break down bias, prejudice, ignorance, hubris, and vested interests. There are just too many people suffering needlessly.

Peter Hunt AM

B.Com, LL.B

As an investment banker Peter Hunt AM advised local and multi-national companies and governments in Australia for nearly 35 years.  He co-founded and was Executive Chairman of one of Australia’s leading investment banking advisory firms, Caliburn Partnership (now called Greenhill Australia) and continued as Chairman of the Firm after its sale to Greenhill Inc in 2009. Peter was a member of the Advisory Panel of ASIC and chaired the Vincent Fairfax Family Office.

Peter is an active philanthropist involved in funding, developing and scaling social sector organisations which seek to create a better and fairer world.  He is Chairman of Mind Medicine Australia which he established with his wife, Tania de Jong, in 2018. He founded Women’s Community Shelter in 2011 and remains on the Board. He was previously Chairman of So They Can, Grameen Australia and Grameen Australia Philippines. Peter is a Director of Project Rozana and an Advisory Board member of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute. Peter also acts as a pro bono adviser to Creativity Australia. 

Peter was made a member of the General Division of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2010 for services to the philanthropic sector.

A Mother’s Prayer To The TGA

Woman on boat

I am writing this as a mother, in the hope that my words may open the closed minds of our politicians, the TGA and the RANZCP, who we rely upon to ensure every Australian has access to the latest medical therapies.

Our 26-year-old daughter suffers from treatment resistant PTSD and severe depression as a result of a trauma when she was only 11.  Rape at any age is devasting, but for a child the impact is profound. We live with the daily fact that with the current treatment of anti- depressants and anti- psychotic drugs available to her in Australia, there is only a 5% chance of her getting well. We also live with the fear that we could lose her. We have journeyed with her for the past 15 years and have seen her suffering as she has tried every treatment available to her. We have all been profoundly impacted by her illness. Our current mental health system has failed our daughter. We need answers. We need treatment. And, we need it now. Tomorrow our daughter may not be here.

Unless you have lived with the fear of your child taking their own life, you will never truly know how it feels. Thousands of mothers, live with that fear every day. Our journey has taken us to countless specialists and across the world. We have watched the work with treatment resistant PTSD using Medicinal MDMA, which is often confused with the recreational drug Ecstasy, Ecstasy is frequently adulterated with more dangerous substances and taken in unsafe environments. We learnt about the outstanding remission rates from Medicinal Psilocybin (which in its natural form comes from certain mushrooms) for treatment of depression. We are confident that these medicines offer real hope. We know that no treatment, even the current ones advocated by our government, is without risks and that the answers are not simple. But we deserve hope.

Clinical trials with medicinal MDMA conducted overseas demonstrate remission rates between 60-80% for treatment resistant PTSD. We were confident Australia would embrace this research in an applied way. Surely, we would act when potentially one of the greatest shifts in psychiatric medicine is knocking on the door? You can imagine our dismay when the TGA refused to reschedule MDMA in its recent Interim Decision. The news was heartbreaking.

The irony is that the TGA is already authorising individual requests from psychiatrists to use these medicines with therapy under its Special Access Scheme, but their listing as prohibited substances in Schedule 9 of the Poisons Standard means that there is no ability to get State and Territory Government approval which is also required so that patients can be treated and have a chance to finally get well.  All this will change if they become Schedule 8 Controlled Medicines.  What a cruel system we have. Providing hope with one hand and taking it away with the other.

I contacted the TGA for answers and found their response deeply disturbing. Their justifications were not based on data or science, but rather demonstrated deep bias and misrepresentation (for example, calling these medicines ‘illicit substances’ when they would, in fact, be used only in clinical medical environments). Their responses were offensive to sufferers and their families.

I contacted the RANZCP in the hope that they would show the capacity to lead us out of this crisis. It was clear that they cannot accept the facts which are undeniable and globally supported by leading experts, that these treatments are a viable and safe treatment option.

These bodies MUST begin to rely upon the validated data generated by the wider medical community. Do they suggest the outstanding research done at the leading Universities around the world is not valid or sufficient? Do they believe that countries that have enabled psychiatrists to use these therapies under Expanded Access Schemes have done so without high levels of regard?  These therapies have been granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation by the USA regulator and my daughter should be given the chance to access these therapies in Australia. Sadly, the Australian community is losing trust in the ability of our institutions to lead us forward. They risk becoming irrelevant as more and more Australians seek treatments conducted illegally by underground therapists.

I contacted every Australian Senator and the common response I have received was “we are sorry for your suffering but it is in the hands of the TGA and RANZCP”. These responses reveal that the TGA and RANZCP have too much power; beyond that of even my elected representatives. I elected my politicians to speak for me and lead us forward, and, as yet, few seem willing to ask if these bodies are advising them correctly and acting in the best interests of Australians. Who will challenge them on my behalf? Has my government forgotten they are here to serve my daughter?

This is so much bigger than my daughter. I speak also for those who don’t have a voice. For the lives already lost and for the families too enmeshed in simply surviving to speak out. Our nation is in a mental health crisis where 1 in 5 Australians have a chronic mental health condition and at least 1 in 8 are on antidepressants including 1 in 4 older adults and 1 in 30 young children.

Anxious adult

Australia should be leading the world in treatment, but instead our system is on its knees, bogged down by regressive thinking that places us as one of the poorest performing countries. We need innovation and leadership from our politicians and our medical establishment.  We can make Australia a leader in this field.  I imagine a day when the world looks to us. A day when no Australian suffers unnecessarily or dies from a treatable mental health illness.

I have NO doubt that the tide is turning and we will see these medicines rescheduled. The push from Australians like myself, WILL bring about this change. I believe the government knows this too.  They know they WILL lose the battle but don’t seem to care about those that will die in the final days of this “war”.

So, it’s time. Enough procrastination, posturing and politics. Our representatives MUST do the job that we have a right to expect of them.

I am praying that the TGA’s announcement this week, that it will be seeking further advice before making the final rescheduling decisions for MDMA and psilocybin will at last mean that the data and facts will come to the surface and block out the bias and stigma. Then finally, change will happen. The TGA has promised an Independent Expert Review into the therapeutic value, risks and benefits to public health outcomes for these medicines. My daughter and so many other sufferers need this so urgently, but I am not holding my breath.

If our government and health agencies continue to fail us, we will be forced to re-mortgage our house and attempt go overseas for treatment. To countries that lead the world in the treatment of mental health. To countries that care in actions, not just words. I will then shout from the roof tops, that my government has failed me and I am deeply ashamed of the country we have become.

Annie Mason

Annie Mason is an educator with a wide range of experiences including classroom teaching K-12, Special Education and Student Wellbeing. She was a Principal for over 15 years and has a special interest in Gender Equity, Social Justice and Women in Leadership. She is a strong advocate for the legal and ethical rights of those with mental health issues.

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