Ben Sessa

Dr. Ben Sessa Gets Suspended From Practicing Psychiatry for Sexual Misconduct

The prominent psychedelic researcher will be prohibited from practicing psychiatry in the UK for a year after having an intimate relationship with a former patient.

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DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated March 12, 2024

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Leading psychedelics researcher Dr. Ben Sessa has been officially banned from practicing medicine in the UK for a year after engaging in an intimate relationship with a former patient who died by suicide shortly after they broke up.

On Monday, a medical tribunal (similar to a medical review board in the United States) in Manchester, United Kingdom, ruled that the scale of Sessa’s professional misconduct brought him to the cusp of losing his psychiatry license. But questions remain over why and how he did not lose his license altogether.

The verdict took into account the vulnerable condition of “Patient A,” who had a history of mental health struggles. The tribunal heard that Patient A, whose identity remained anonymous throughout the proceedings, attempted suicide by overdose in 2020 and attempted to take her life again in 2021, according to a timeline of events provided to the media by The Medical Practitioner’s Tribunal Service (MPTS). She died by overdose in February 2022, not long after her relationship with Sessa ended, according to sources in the Bristol psychedelic scene.

The news has sent shockwaves through the British psychedelic space, though many already had concerns about Sessa’s conduct. He is a relative veteran of the psychedelic research scene and is credited for coining the term “psychedelic renaissance” in an eponymous book he wrote in 2012. He co-founded the UK psychedelic conference Breaking Convention, and in 2009 he became the first person in decades to legally receive a psychedelic drug in the country when he took part in a groundbreaking psilocybin trial run by Professor David Nutt. His work in the UK led to his involvement in the official rollout of legal MDMA therapy with Mind Medicine Australia, a psychedelic medicine biotech company. He was also interviewed for the recent Netflix series How to Change Your Mind, based on Michael Pollan’s bestselling book, and he appeared on a BBC radio show in January

Mr. Taylor, the counsel representing the General Medical Council, the overarching authority for doctors in the UK, told the tribunal that Sessa’s intimate relationship with a former patient would be considered “deplorable by fellow professionals.” He already seems persona non grata in some circles. Breaking Convention released a statement on Tuesday expressing “shock” and “dismay” at the severity of his misconduct. Mind Medicine Australia also stopped working with Sessa on February 11, 2024, as per a statement released on its website.

“Patient A made attempts on her life in May and July 2021, as well as serious overdoses four times [between] October and November 2020, all of which led to hospital admissions,” the report released to the media by MPTS said. “The Tribunal considered it surprising that Dr. Sessa never queried Patient A’s mental state during their relationship, given his professional expertise and previous knowledge of her mental health.”

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Sessa’s lawyer, who is named in records as Mr. Brassington, told the tribunal he was “troubled” by the suggestion that Sessa failed to use his psychiatric training to assess Patient A’s mental health during their relationship and raise alarm before her death. He claimed, “Sessa could not and should not have used his skills to assess Patient A during their relationship, as this would have been a different kind of breach” of good medical practice.

“Mr. Brassington said that if the Tribunal was concerned that Dr. Sessa did not pick up on signs of concern from Patient A during their relationship, it was because she was masking them effectively,” the report read. “He submitted that no one else had identified a cause for concern, including her [general practitioner] whom she had seen a few days before her death.”

The overarching authority for doctors in the UK told the tribunal that Sessa’s intimate relationship with his former patient would be considered “deplorable by fellow professionals.”

However, photos on her X (formerly Twitter) profile up until October 2021 suggest that she drank alcohol regularly, including with Sessa. In August 2020, he did a consultation with Patient A—who had a history of problematic alcohol use—in a pub whilst she was drinking a glass of wine. Sessa said that the pub was among the only establishments open at the time of Patient A’s appointment, and heavy rain prevented an outdoor consultation. The tribunal members, chaired by Gillian Temple-Bone ruled that “It was not appropriate to hold a consultation with a patient who had problems with alcohol in a pub, particularly when she was drinking alcohol.”

Sessa acknowledges that he made “a series of catastrophically poor judgments” after initially meeting Patient A. She first contacted him under a pseudonym on X in February 2021. They struck up a friendship online for five weeks before she revealed her identity. Sessa had begun treating her in January 2019. A well-placed source to the situation told us that Sessa allegedly prescribed Patient A benzodiazepines over the course of their patient-doctor relationship.

In October 2020, she sent him an email saying she had recently attempted suicide and intended to seek residential psychiatric treatment. It’s unclear whether she followed through on obtaining care. But in March 2021—weeks after Patient A revealed her identity to Sessa on X— Sessa formally discharged her from his care in order to explore a relationship. At this time, he assessed her as “High functioning, smart, intelligent, happy, well.” From July 2021 until February 2022, they had a sexual relationship.

“This was not a case of a doctor pursuing sexual gratification, but rather one of a couple falling in love and pursuing a full relationship together,” Sessa’s lawyer told the tribunal, according to the paraphrased MPTS report.

Sessa told the tribunal: “My heart overtook my head.” The report went on to say that Sessa said Patient A “was very persuasive and tried to convince him that their relationship was acceptable but that she wanted to tell friends that they had met on Twitter, not that Sessa had been her doctor. He suggested that Patient A may have “felt safe by being in a relationship with her former psychiatrist.”

The tribunal ruled that Patient A was “at all times, vulnerable due to her mental health conditions.” It also noted the “gross power imbalance between the two,” with Sessa having intimate knowledge of her vulnerabilities. “His decision to develop a relationship with his former patient was an abuse of his professional position,” the ruling said.

“[The tribunal] considered that Dr. Sessa did not seem to realise that he did not use his skills as a psychiatrist to check on Patient A’s wellbeing, despite her vulnerability. Instead, he saw what he wanted to enable his pursuit of a relationship with her.”

At one point, Sessa told the tribunal that the “isolated incident” was “a blip in an otherwise excellent career.” His lawyer also said it was a “vanishing possibility” that Sessa would repeat such acts in the future. 

His sanction was not greater for several reasons. One is because the tribunal recognized Sessa’s contrition. Another is because it was acknowledged that Patient A contacted Sessa first in a personal capacity, and that he had already taken a number of trainings and professional development courses to help remediate his misconduct. He also cooperated fully after Patient A’s estranged husband had raised concerns in November 2022. 

The exact circumstances of her death by suicide remain unclear, but it is understood she died of a prescribed medication overdose which included codeine.

“Grief is a lifelong process,” Sessa told the tribunal. “Over three years, I lost my mother, my father, my business, and my partner. This grief will always be with me.”

DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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