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University of Ottawa's New Psychedelics Master's Program Integrates Science, Spirituality, and Culture
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University of Ottawa's New Psychedelics Master's Program Integrates Science, Spirituality, and Culture

Seraiah Alexander
Seraiah Alexander
June 20, 2024
8 min

This upcoming fall, the University of Ottawa will be introducing a unique master’s degree program in Psychedelics and Consciousness Studies. As the first academic program of its kind, it will explore the therapeutic, spiritual, and cultural dimensions of psychedelics. We had the honor of speaking with Dr. Anne Vallely,  the program’s co-director, who shared her insightful views on the evolving role of psychedelic research and how it could transform both academic and therapeutic landscapes.

From counterculture to the classroom

Psychedelics have gone a long way from being stigmatized substances to gaining recognition for their therapeutic potential. In recent years, we’ve seen a dramatic reevaluation of the substances, backed by extensive clinical research demonstrating their efficacy in treating conditions like depression and PTSD.

“We are witnessing a shift from stigma and prohibition towards popular interest and therapeutic acceptance. Clouded by over half a century of stigma and associated primarily with hedonistic reckless use, psychedelics are now being re-evaluated and appreciated as powerful tools with incredible potential for enhancing human well-being. This transformation is largely driven by the growing body of clinical research that supports the use of psychedelics for treating various mental health disorders, which has sparked popular interest and shifted public perception dramatically.”

Yet, beyond scientific research, the growing revival of psychedelic medicine has been significantly impacted by contemporary media and literature. Over the past decade, several influential works have brought the discussion of psychedelics into the public eye, helping to shift perceptions of these substances as illicit drugs to recognizing their healing potential. 

“For instance, American author Michael Pollan became fascinated with the research coming out of JHU and NYU, which led to his writing the book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, published in 2018. It became an immediate bestseller, further propelling psychedelics into the public eye and contributing to their de-stigmatization. As psychedelics are seen more objectively, their therapeutic potential is becoming more recognized and legitimized.”

These narratives have played a significant role in reframing the conversation around psychedelics, presenting them as viable subjects for serious academic inquiry and therapeutic use. Academic programs, such as the one at the University of Ottawa, will provide the thorough research needed to help validate and expand the field of psychedelic studies.

“University-based programs will help to further legitimize the field through rigorous academic inquiry and accreditation. The accreditation process itself is a critical step in this transformation, underscoring the credibility and importance of our academic approach to studying psychedelics.”

A comprehensive and multidimensional curriculum

The University of Ottawa’s program is designed to equip students with the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in the various aspects of psychedelic studies. The curriculum spans clinical and research domains, offering an expansive education to prepare students for the complexities and opportunities of this evolving field. 

“Our program is designed to prepare students to contribute effectively to this evolving landscape in different ways. For instance, students with appropriate backgrounds will be able to become involved in research and in the clinical application of psychedelics for a range of disorders where traditional treatments may fall short.”

However, this program is not only limited to clinical applications. It emphasizes the importance of understanding psychedelics within their cultural and ritual context, which is crucial for appreciating how they can be integrated into broader social practices and personal development. 

“Another area that students will contribute to is the exploration of psychedelics in non-clinical settings, which examines the significance of ritual and social connections in the healing process. Researchers are increasingly interested in how structured, culturally-informed practices can enhance the therapeutic effects of psychedelics, potentially broadening the scope of their use beyond traditional therapy to include community-driven and ceremonial contexts.”

Despite the overwhelming medical attention psychedelics have been receiving, Dr. Vallely emphasizes the importance of studying them through an interdisciplinary approach to evaluate the broad perspectives that are crucial for understanding the full spectrum of how psychedelics can influence human consciousness and well-being.

“Mainstream culture has largely followed suit, viewing psychedelics primarily as tools for mental health — a perspective we certainly aim to enrich — but their potential reaches well beyond this scope. By adopting a broader lens that incorporates the study of religion, spirituality, history, culture, contemplative practices, and art, we intend to shift the focus away from the strictly clinical framework. Historically, psychedelics have been revered as powerful tools for consciousness expansion and spiritual connection—roles that have been valued by humanity for millennia. Adopting this broad perspective is crucial to ensure that psychedelics are not subsumed within the realm of medicine.”

Expanding on this, Dr. Vallely believes that the greatest potential of psychedelics extends beyond their therapeutic uses but also in their ability to help us better understand the human experience.

“These substances can offer profound insights not only into our individual lives and personal challenges, but also into our collective societal and global challenges. Psychedelics counteract the tendency to isolate and compartmentalize issues that, in reality, are interconnected. Our mental health crisis, for instance, is not distinct from our environmental challenges, nor from pervasive ageism and death phobia, or the indifference to the suffering of other living beings. Psychedelics enable us to perceive how the malaise of modernity is rooted in the instrumentalization of life, challenging this perspective and urging a more holistic view. This transformative potential allows us to reconceptualize our relationship with the world, pushing against the fragmentation of our experiences and understanding. 

In this way, psychedelics serve not just as tools for individual therapy but as catalysts for broader reflection and societal change. Our program aims to place students at the forefront of psychedelic research and training, and to equip them to creatively push the boundaries of this field in responsible and transformative ways.”

Addressing the ethical complexities involved in psychedelic research

The ethical dimensions of psychedelic use are complex, as safety, cultural sensitivity, and equitable access need to be taken into account. The program emphasizes the importance of preparing its students to navigate these issues responsibly.

“The excitement over the therapeutic potential of psychedelics has at times led to a neglect or downplaying of discussions about ethical concerns and risk factors. But of course, these concerns remain central. The relative neglect in making them front and centre of discourse is connected with the ongoing need to counteract the negative stigma and legal demonization surrounding psychedelics. Since 1970, psychedelics have been strictly regulated under Schedule 1 classification – which implies that they have a high potential for abuse, and are devoid of therapeutic value.

This is baseless: classical psychedelics are effectively non-toxic, non-addictive, and have shown significant therapeutic benefits. But, since legal restrictions continue to hinder research progress and therapeutic use, there is a need for advocacy work to encourage governments to look at the science and remove these substances from their tight regulation under outdated laws. I think that the massive effort to take the science seriously and to chip away at deep-seated bias and fear has led to less attention being paid to risks.”

Of course, it’s still crucial to recognize the risks behind psychedelics, especially considering their intense effects on our brains. Students will need to understand and navigate these risks in order to provide safe treatment to patients.

“They influence perception, emotion, and cognition in ways that we do not fully understand. These substances can alter one’s sense of self, dissolve boundaries between the self and the environment – (something similar is possible for long-term meditation practitioners.) Indeed, many believe that it is these profound nonordinary states of consciousness that are primarily responsible for catalyzing personal insights and healing – but because we do not fully understand what is meant when we say that the ‘self is dissolved,’ we need to tread with great care…For students who enter our program in the clinical mental health care stream (i.e., those who are already certified mental health care workers), the program will offer the gold standard in therapist training and competence. They will learn how to manage both physical and psychological risks associated with psychedelic use.”

The curriculum also emphasizes the importance of creating safe, culturally sensitive environments for psychedelic therapy and research, especially for marginalized communities who have been historically excluded from these conversations. The program aims to honor and integrate these diverse perspectives, ensuring that all voices are respected and that the benefits of psychedelic therapies are accessible to everyone. 

“Ethical concerns extend beyond individual client wellbeing, and concern communities in our society. Important social justice issues are at play. If we want to ensure equitable access to psychedelic therapies for all who need them, across different socio-economic groups, we need to better understand demographic variabilities as they relate to psychedelics.

For instance, the historical over-policing and harsh sentencing for drug offenses among African Americans or Indigenous peoples have contributed to a stigma around the use of all drugs, including psychedelics, within these communities. It has also fostered distrust of legal and medical institutions, which can extend to treatments involving psychedelics… Our graduate program includes education and advocacy. By doing so, we can address these disparities and help ensure that psychedelic therapies are accessible and trusted by those who might benefit from them, particularly those historically marginalized.” 

Incorporating these principles into the program is crucial for fostering a new generation of researchers who are not only knowledgeable about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics but are also respectful of the cultures and communities that have traditionally used them. Dr. Vallely stresses the importance of taking action to involve and compensate these communities fairly to preserve their cultural heritage while advancing psychedelic science.

“How can we use these plants without harming the species or the cultures that hold them sacred? Furthermore, how do we respect the traditional knowledge and practices associated with them? These questions are challenging, and the answers will vary depending on the community one works with, the substance and the geographic area involved. Addressing them undoubtedly requires concrete actions to ensure that the communities, whose wisdom and practices have enriched this field, are respected, actively involved, and fairly compensated.

We have already established partnerships with communities that have historically used these substances in their cultural and spiritual practices. We want to expand on this. We also believe in the power of co-creation, where research projects are developed not merely to extract knowledge but to generate direct benefits for these communities. These approaches will work to ensure that their contributions are recognized and that their cultural heritage is preserved in the advancement of psychedelic science.”

The program’s long-term impact

Looking ahead, Dr. Vallely sees the potential of this program as a catalyst for broader societal changes. Examining psychedelics across various disciplines and societal contexts is key to nurturing a generation of researchers and practitioners who can responsibly advance the field and address interconnected global challenges. 

“We envision that the long-term impact of our psychedelic studies program will be transformative – within academic circles, within health care, and potentially even beyond it, in how we understand our place on the planet. We hope to contribute to the pioneering of an acceptance of psychedelics and to an interest in studying their potential for health and wellbeing. We also aim to see a broader range of academic disciplines involved in psychedelic research.

This would enrich the curriculum and also ensure that psychedelics are not merely reduced to extensions of pharmaceutical medicine or confined to therapeutic tools. We anticipate that our program will stimulate research, including interdisciplinary collaborations, that could lead to advancements in our understanding of psychedelics. This includes developing new mental health treatments, exploring the role of spirituality in healing, deepening insights into human consciousness, and even sparking philosophical inquiries about human existence.” 

The University of Ottawa’s Master’s program in Psychedelics and Consciousness Studies is set to make significant contributions to the evolving field of psychedelic research and education. With applications for the Fall 2024 cohort opening this September, the program offers a special opportunity for students to be a part of a transformative movement that could redefine our approach to mental health, cultural understanding, and the exploration of human consciousness.

For more information and to apply, visit the University of Ottawa’s Psychedelics and Consciousness Studies page.


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Seraiah Alexander

Seraiah Alexander

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Table Of Contents

1
From counterculture to the classroom
2
A comprehensive and multidimensional curriculum
3
Addressing the ethical complexities involved in psychedelic research
4
The program’s long-term impact

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