Scotland

Scot Squad actor Darren Connell ate psychedelic tree bark to beat depression

Darren Connell
Image caption Actor and comedian Darren Connell says he's never been happier

When actor and comedian Darren Connell suffered from depression he didn't want to go down the road of traditional anti-depressants. Instead he flew to Peru to take a psychedelic substance - banned in the UK - which has been used by indigenous groups in South America for centuries.

Darren Connell doesn't strike you as a person battling demons. Cheerful, relaxed, a healthy glow to his cheeks - but that wasn't always the case.

Rewind two years and the stand-up comic and actor who plays Bobby in the spoof police show Scot Squad, was in a very different place.

"I think everyone in their life has experience of depression," the 32-year-old from Glasgow told BBC Scotland's Mornings with Stephen Jardine.

"It maybe came into my life when I was about 16 onwards, sometimes it's been bad, then not as bad.

"A couple of years ago I found myself caught in a rut - self-medicating with alcohol and food, the stress of being a stand-up comedian.

"I was on anti-depressants and they weren't agreeing with me. They were making me struggle with my weight, my skin, my sleeping."

Image caption Darren is probably best known for playing Bobby in Scot Squad

On the surface his life looked good - Scot Squad was filming a fourth series and his comedy routines were getting good reviews - but behind the mask lay an unhappiness which was reflected in his diet.

Litres of Irn Bru or Lucozade, filled rolls for breakfast, Greggs for lunch, fast food at night. His weight rose to 20 stone (127kg), the heaviest he'd ever been.

Darren had sought the help of his GP for his mental health problems - and he has no criticism of the NHS but he wanted to try something different. He decided to fly to Peru to take ayahuasca, one of the strongest psychedelic drugs in the world.

"I love the term 'against the grain'," he explains. "I called my stand-up show that and I thought that was the ultimate example to go by.

"I thought I can't do anything more crazy than go to Peru and take this medicine."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ayahuasca, made from the bark of two plants, is one of the strongest known psychedelic drugs

Ayahuasca is a potent hallucinogenic brew that has been used by shamans, or healers, in the Amazon for centuries for medical and spiritual purposes.

Made from tree bark, experts say it is dangerous - in the UK it is a class A illegal drug.

But there is anecdotal evidence of it helping people struggling with mental health problems. Many have travelled to retreats in Europe or South America to find out if it can help them.

'Am I going to die here?'

After a 32-hour journey by plane and boat, Darren found himself in a hut in the Amazon rainforest.

"I was in the jungle, we were going up the Amazon river in a boat. It was nothing I'd been used to in my life.

"We were in this hut for two weeks on a strict diet. You're supposed to go on a detox before it, no bread, no sugar, no cigarettes, no alcohol... that made me realise how my diet has always been terrible. I could stop drinking and stop smoking but I couldn't stop eating junk food."

Ayahuasca is usually administered in a small glass or cup as part of a traditional ceremony

"A shaman gives it you. There's about 13 people in a tent and you go through this ritual. It's very personal - it's a really crazy experience."

Image copyright Darren Connell
Image caption Darren, on the left, spent two weeks in the Peruvian rain forest

Drinking the brew - and its immediate aftermath - is a deeply unpleasant experience. Darren was issued with his personal "purge bucket".

"We drank it six times. It was a day on, a day off. It was the most rancid, disgusting thing I've ever drunk in my life. It was so disgusting that the day off was spent pep talking myself, like 'I can't believe I've got to drink that again'.

"It's a tiny, tiny amount, it's like half a shot but it instantly goes into your system and it instantly makes you want to be sick."

There were times when Darren questioned what he was doing. At one point he didn't eat for five days.

"I'm not being dramatic but I was like 'am I going to die here?'"

He told himself if any of the others dropped out, he would pull out as well - but no-one did.

"I believe that experience is designed to physically, mentally and spiritually break you," he says.

Image copyright Instagram
Image caption Darren says he had hit "rock bottom" before making lifestyle changes

The impact on Darren's mental health wasn't immediate. On returning home he felt "shellshocked". But he believes it planted a seed in his mind, and in the months that followed he realised his outlook had changed.

"The things I got from it were never drink alcohol again, antidepressants aren't for me - and when you go through the process of taking ayahuasca you do get visions. Maybe that night I was getting dreams and visions and stuff. The main thing I was getting was you need to be a healthier person, you need to start looking after your body.

"I was getting visions of two paths in life. I was getting one vision of me really happy and fit with a family and kids and that kind of stuff. Equally I was getting this other vision of me, like old and really overweight and a lifetime of abuse with food and alcohol."

His visions also made him reflect on how his actions affected others.

"It was showing me visions of me being cheeky to my mum but it was showing it from her point of view. Like maybe I was leaving her house and she was still sitting there and it was showing me the effects of me being a bad person."

What do the experts say about ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca, also known as yage, is a blend of two plants - the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

It is banned in the UK and some countries in Europe but legal in the Netherlands, Italy, Brazil and Peru,

Five years ago a British teenager died after taking it while travelling in Colombia. Doctors and drug charities warn it could make a person's mental health problems worse.

Most experts agree it should never be taken in an uncontrolled environment such as a retreat - but some doctors and researchers believe ayahuasca should be studied as a way of developing new treatments.

Dr Simon Ruffell, a clinical psychiatrist and researcher at King's College, London, who has studied ayahuasca, said: "We know from brain imaging scans that the brain becomes more neuro-plastic which basically means more flexible, more like putty. It allow more neuronal connections to be made in the brain.

"Psychologically this translates as being able to think about your life objectively rather than subjectively, so it give you a new perspective and allows you to think about things in a new way and therefore allows you to make appropriate changes."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Some scientists argue for more research into how ayahuasca affects the brain

GP Lesley Morrison has known people who felt their mental health was improved by ayahuasca but she would always caution against taking it.

"People have some anecdotal evidence that it's beneficial but it hasn't been properly tested and there are potentially very risky side-effects."

She added: "I understand as Darren said that anti-depressants weren't for him and that's the case for a lot of people, but there are other options for treating depression that are much less potentially risky."

'Born again'

Two-and-a-half years after taking ayahuasca, Darren believes it helped him turn his life around.

"Right now, I'm the happiest and the healthiest I've ever been," he says.

"Without sounding cheesy, it was like a born-again experience. I went from a XXXL. I'm back down to an XL. I was a 42 in my waist, I think I'm down to a 34 now.

"I don't weigh myself anymore, something I was obsessed with, being an actor and scared of being typecast. 'Am I just the fat funny guy?' I'd rather just be the funny guy. Or I'd walk into an audition room and feel like a piece of meat because I've been overweight my whole life and using that as a tool to be funny."

Darren is now vegan, he's given up sugar, junk food and fizzy drinks.

"Ayahuasca is only a tool you can use to feel better. You need to do other things. If you're drinking too much alcohol smoking cigarettes and stuff you need to exercise and not put this in your body," he said.

"I need to say that ayahuasca isn't like a magic pill that's going to change your life but it's had a positive ripple effect on my life."

If you or someone you know has been affected by mental health problems, visit the BBC advice pages.

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