A brand new microprogram in Psychedelics & Spirituality Studies is now available for students at the University of Ottawa virtually, three semesters a year. It sits at the intersection of several disciplines including Religion, Psychology, Anthropology, and Health and delves into the spiritual, ritualistic, and therapeutic uses of psychedelics and other non-ordinary states of consciousness, cross-culturally and throughout history.
We asked the creators of this microprogram, Dr. Anne Vallely, Associate Professor with the Department of Classics & Religious Studies at the Faculty of Arts, and Dr. Monnica Williams, Associate Professor at the School of Psychology of the Faculty of Social Sciences, to discuss the importance of this microprogram for the first time in Canada.
Tell us more about yourselves and what brought you to collaborate on this initiative.
(Dr. Anne Vallely): I have been working at the University of Ottawa since 2004 as a religious Anthropologist where most of my fieldwork is in India. My work has focused mainly on issues around death and dying in the last seven or eight years. I am also interested in asceticism, devotional practices, pilgrimage, non-ordinary states of consciousness, all within a religious context, predominantly within the Jain tradition in India. I became very interested in looking at the comparative framework and some of these existential questions regarding the difference between dying processes in Indian and North America. In North America, when someone is in palliative or hospice care, the dying process can be a period of profound darkness and dying is commonly understood in our society as a period of depression and annihilation. It is quite normal that people can be profoundly depressed as they age and in that process of dying. Remarkably, I have seen a very different phenomenon throughout my two decades of research within the religious communities in India. I'm not suggesting that all of India has a deeply spiritual way of understanding the aging process and death, but the community that I study and work with does. Modern medicine is very good at dealing with physical pain, whereas it is not as proficient in addressing questions on suffering, existential and meaning issues or on the subject of spirituality in general.Two years ago I organized a workshop on end of life issues and the role of psychedelics which is where I met Monnica, she has since joined us at uOttawa and we have been working together ever since.
Dr. Monnica Williams
I became interested in the subject of psychedelics six or seven years ago. To be honest, I would never have imagined that as a clinical psychologist and a behaviourist that I would have evolved into a psychedelic researcher, even a decade ago. I study fear and anxiety conditions and how they are treated by professionals. Much of early work as a junior psychologist was examining behavioral treatment approaches for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). What interested me the most is the trauma which can ensue due to racism. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with researchers at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in a research project which afforded me the opportunity to learn more about using MDMA as a treatment for PTSD. This innovative approach is more compassionate and gentler than the traditional exposure-based treatment that can be very hard on patients. It is a wonderful alternative and I have been involved in that ever since.
What is a microprogramme? Can you explain the importance of establishing the first microprogramme in Canada on Psychedelics & Spirituality Studies at the University of Ottawa?
Microprograms are new at the University of Ottawa. There are many microprograms in different disciplines across the university. When COVID-19 hit, we were able to offer online classes to many more students. Microprograms are fast track programs, which in our case involves three courses (nine credits) in Psychedelics and Spirituality Studies. There is novelty in combining these. It's going to be the first microprogram on Psychedelic Studies in Canada. In fact, it's an interdisciplinary interfaculty program, looking at the spiritual content of these experiences. This is the second year we’re running this program and it’s being offered each semester at the University of Ottawa. Our goal is to create a full one-year Master’s program in Psychedelic Studies and Conscientious Studies for the Fall 2022 semester given that this is the second year we are running this program. The three courses will also be stackable for those interested in pursuing this Master’s program in so far as individuals will have already taken nine credits towards it. The courses look at harm reduction, the social dimensions of psychedelics, spiritual dimensions, neurology and offer an overview of psychedelic studies.
There is a tremendous interest in this field and it’s a very good opportunity for us to educate people about this. As a clinician, I see this as a paradigm shift in mental health care. Our courses are offered at other institutions but we thought it would be phenomenal to offer them at a reputable institution like the University of Ottawa which adds a lot of credibility to them. People could feel confident in the knowledge and training they receive that is based on accurate, evidence based, scientific information.
How has the university community responded to the microprogram? Where do you see the evolution of the program going?
The university community has been incredibly supportive. I'm at the Faculty of Arts in the Classics and Religious Studies Department, whereas Dr. Williams is at the Faculty of Social Sciences. Our respective deans, Kevin Kee (Faculty of Arts) and Vicky Barham (Faculty of Social Sciences) have been incredibly supportive. We affectionately refer to Vicky as a force majeure as she has been actively pushing the program and sees the value of its interdisciplinarity for the University of Ottawa. We need anthropologists, Iindigenous scholars, and religious studies scholars to collaborate with brain chemistry scientists to help better understand some of this phenomena.
There are research centers focusing on brain chemistry, pharmaceuticals and neuroscience and they’re adding spiritual elements to their respective programs. As a researcher in psychology, I think it would be detrimental to omit spiritual and religious perspectives to this work. I often receive emails from enthusiastic individuals asking how they can get more information and sign up for the program. As Anne mentioned, both deans are incredibly supportive and are very excited about the program and its potential. My department chair is equally supportive.
This interdisciplinary program is certainly going to be interfaculty at the master’s level. The MA will be housed in all likelihood in the School of Psychology, but with religious studies input, and our microprogram is also an interdisciplinary program between religious studies and psychology. A PhD in Psychedelic Studies will be possible at the University of Ottawa. Following the MA, a candidate could continue studies for the doctorate either within Religious Studies or (experimental) Psychology (obviously provided other admission requirements are met).
The classes are available online so students across Canada or anywhere in the world can select and register for them. With the amount of interest we are seeing, we anticipate that the time is fast approaching where it will be difficult to get into the program; the program I talked about earlier is full until next year.