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New VIU program expands the therapeutic toolkit

The program hopes to create an environment that is safe and effective for the use of psychedelics.

BY ERIKA THORKELSON | APR 25 2022

In these times of widespread anxiety and depression, the traditional therapeutic toolbox can sometimes seem frustratingly limited. This September, Vancouver Island University is hoping to expand that toolbox by becoming the first accredited university in Canada to offer a graduate certificate program in using psychedelics such as psylocibin, or “magic mushrooms,” in mental health care. The Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy program, aimed at experienced health-care practitioners, has been developed by VIU nursing professor Shannon Dames and adjunct professor Pamela Kryskow. who both have a number of years’ experience with Roots to Thrive, a program focused on psychedelic-assisted therapy for end-of-life distress.

Dr. Dames became interested in these kinds of therapies after an experience of using psychedelics in the healing process from her own early childhood trauma. After spending decades researching resilience and mental health while supporting survivors of abuse and earning a PhD in nursing from the University of Calgary in the process, she spent three weeks walking across Peru. There, she had a life-changing experience with ayahuasca, a plant-based psychedelic used in Indigenous ceremonies that has received a lot of attention for its potential benefits in treating complex cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction.

“It was more impactful than anything I’ve ever experienced in terms of being able to get into my body and feel who I am outside of all the conditioning and trauma,” Dr. Dames remembers.

Psilocybe (pictured here) is a genus of mushroom known for its psychedelic qualities.

This ability to experience safety in one’s body is key because a central technique in therapy is to bring patients back to a sense of themselves before the trauma. Yet those who suffer most, whose mental health conditions have been deemed “treatment resistant”—a phrase Dr. Dames dislikes because it puts tacit blame on the person—often have no memories that predate their childhood trauma. When administered properly, psychedelics can offer a embodied experience of that safety to return to during the therapeutic process.

One challenge in developing these therapies is how Western health care tends to focus on the safety of the body above all. While psylocibin has a safety profile “better than aspirin,” Dr. Dames points out that it tends to lower inhibitions in ways that can make users more vulnerable unless they have proper support. “We’re still trying to understand how we can maximize safety,” she explains. “Especially when you look at a biomedical system that has a big focus on physical safety, but has some real gaps in terms of psychological safety.”

To address this, the program encourages a community of practice structure, bringing together a variety of practitioners to create an environment that is safe and effective for the use of psychedelics. “It’s imperative that we are addressing the whole mind-body-spirit aspect of humans,” said Dr. Dames. “We’re watching all their doors in a way that’s safe for the whole human, not just the physical body.”

While this is the first program of its kind in Canada, VIU is collaborating with other institutions doing similar work. The University of Ottawa opened a microprogram in psychedelics and spirituality studies in 2020 and will be expanding to a master’s program in fall 2022. The Toronto-based University Health Network is in the process of launching the Nikean Psychedelic Research Centre thanks to a $5 million grant from the Nikean Foundation. Together, these institutions are working to ensure treatment standards are consistent across the country.

Because these kinds of therapies arise out of Indigenous traditions, Dr. Dames argued that Indigenous ways of knowing are also key to their development. That includes formal recognition of and financial compensation for Indigenous knowledge keepers who take part in the development process. “For us to not have Indigenous people at the table paid to do this work – it’s a strong word – but it’s a bit irresponsible,” she said. “It’s also part of our responsibility as Canadians to make sure that Indigenous people are co-leading this with us.”

Dr. Dames believes that given all we have learned about mental health in the past few decades, the movement toward this kind of safe, research-driven therapeutic treatment with psychedelics is both urgent and inevitable. “In our civilization, this is where we’re at,” she said. “We can’t afford to not expand the mental health toolbox.”

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