Monday, June 24, 2024

uOttawa launches world’s first master’s degree in psychedelics

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The program aims to advance research in psychology, consciousness, comparative mysticism, and psychedelic-assisted interventions

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The University of Ottawa has launched a master’s program aimed at equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need to harness the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

The program, which opens next September, will be housed in the university’s psychology department, but run in partnership with the department of classics and religious studies. Students will be able to take a broad range of courses from neuroscience to comparative mysticism.

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Psychedelics, also known as hallucinogens, are drugs that change the user’s perception of reality. Long associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, there has been renewed interest in the use of psychedelics to treat psychiatric disorders, as well as their use for spiritual purposes.

There’s a growing move to decriminalize psychedelics across Canada, said Dr. Monnica William, the program’s co-director. In Alberta, psychedelic-assisted therapy is legal and regulated.

That’s why a program like this one is needed, said Williams, a psychology professor and the Canada Research Chair for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Ottawa. 

“I think the program will be interesting to a few specific types of learners. For one, mental health professionals who want to really bolster their knowledge of psychedelics in light of the fact that these are being rolled out for mental health care. Most clinicians haven’t had any training in how to use them.”

Last year, the federal government announced it was spending nearly $3 million through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research on three clinical trials to examine psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy as a potential treatment for alcohol use disorder, treatment-resistant depression and end-of-life psychological distress in advanced-stage cancer patients. Psilocybin is a naturally-occurring psychedelic found in some species of mushrooms.

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Williams is also anticipating that those who are interested in spiritual uses will also be drawn to the program, such as practitioners who are interested in offering psychedelics for end-of-life distress and those who want to use them for traditional or Indigenous spiritual practices.

As a world-first program, it’s expected to have international appeal. The admission portal opened on Wednesday and applications are already starting to trickle in, Williams said. The university is aiming to enroll a first class of 10 students, then double that to 20 in 2025 and double it again in 2026, when the program will open to francophone students.

The course of study takes a year for those who are studying on campus and two years for those who are studying online.

“We’re going to be prioritizing admissions from people who are already registered medical care providers and mental health providers to help them get up to speed as quickly as possible, given the coming changes,” Williams said.

There are already studies on psychedelics underway at the University of Ottawa, where researchers were recently awarded a grant to study ketamine-assisted therapy for people with major depressive disorder.

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At the University of British Columbia, researchers are studying psilocybin for people struggling with bipolar 2 disorder, which causes long depressive episodes. The multi-site study will include a University of Ottawa component.

Based on William’s research experience, there’s a lot of public interest in the potential of psychedelics.

“As soon as a study is announced, there are long waiting lists of people who want to get in,” she said. “We know of so many mental health treatments that are effective for a lot of people, but they’re not effective for everybody. That translates to a lot of people suffering, looking for relief. This is such a promising area that there’s a lot of buzz.”

It has taken four or five years for the program to come to fruition, Williams said. When most people hear about the program, they’re surprised and a little confused.

“But other researchers and people who have been studying this and advocating for its availability, they’re really thrilled,” she said. “A lot of bringing this program to fruition was just educating people about the science.”

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