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The Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health (BPMH) Program is an interdisciplinary undergraduate Minor that allows students to choose from a wide range of courses in Buddhist Studies, cognitive science, medical anthropology, psychology of religion, health psychology, and sociological analyses of physical and mental health. With this training, students acquire an understanding of how Buddhist traditions have interacted with and contributed to global and diverse understandings of consciousness, mental health and illness, and determinants of physical health.

Since its founding in 2007, this undergraduate Minor Program has grown exponentially. Many BPMH courses typically have long waiting lists. Enrollment in the Minor has risen dramatically since the inception of the program, from 34 students in 2007-08 to 308 students in 2020-21, making the Minor program the second largest program at New College. Enrollment in the BPMH minor currently accounts for 32% of students enrolled in all New College academic programs and 56% of students enrolled in New College minor programs.

The program was founded and led by Dr Tony Toneatto until his retirement in 2020. In summer 2021, Dr Frances Garrett was appointed as the new program director.

Our Program’s Rationale

The program responds to a growing public dialogue between scientists, academics and health practitioners about the contributions of Buddhism to understanding physical and mental health. Many mental health professionals (e.g., physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counsellors) are exploring how psychotherapy, counselling, psychology and aspects of Buddhist practice may support each other. A rapidly expanding body of scientific literature — now thousands of empirical articles — support the efficacy of mindfulness meditation (the most popular of Buddhist-inspired therapeutic methods) for enhancing mental and physical health and subjective well-being. Many scientists are also studying the neurobiological correlates of mindfulness meditation, discovering that regular practice of meditation can profoundly affect human physiology.

It is not surprising then, that this area of study is increasingly popular among university students who

  • are interested in global and diverse models of mental health and well-being;
  • benefit personally from the self-reflective, meta-cognitive, and phenomenological study of Buddhism, psychology and mental health; and
  • can obtain employment or pursue a graduate career in this field (i.e., contemplative studies programs, scientific study of mindfulness, professional psychology programs that adopt mindfulness, contemplative and compassion modalities, community and social activism).

Not only is the program’s subject matter unique, but also the pedagogical approaches found in the BPMH program are exceptional at the University. Many courses focus on developing students’ skills in meta-cognitive and phenomenological reflection. This typically means that much of what is discussed in courses is easily seen to be immediately relevant to students’ lives (i.e., it is ‘experience-near’). BPMH courses develop capacities for self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-examination in contexts of relational, intersectional, and global interconnections. Many BPMH courses draw on contemplative pedagogies, which “shifts the focus of teaching and learning to incorporate ‘first person’ approaches [that] connect students to their lived, embodied experience of their own learning. Students are encouraged to become more aware of their internal world and connect their learning to their own values and sense of meaning which in turn enables them to form richer deeper, relationships with their peers, their communities and the world around them.”

The BPMH program is currently the only public university undergraduate program of its kind in Canada, the United States, or elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Similar programs that exist are either graduate level, certificates/diplomas, or offered within private universities or institutions. In both theory and practice, the BPMH program strongly and directly aligns with the recommendations of the Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, December 2019, which addressed the growing and serious mental health crisis of our students.

Extra-curricular Program Activities

To support the Minor, program faculty and students organize activities and catalyze inter-departmental and inter-institutional collaborations, specifically with the Department of Psychology and the Department for the Study of Religion. These activities have included the following:

  • A yearly Senior Doctoral Fellowship, valued at $1,500, for one student who presents their research and participates in activities of the minor. Senior Doctoral Fellows engage with the intellectual community at New College and give an academic seminar related to their research.
  • Conferences and seminars featuring recent research in Buddhism, psychology, and mental health, with invited lectures and practical workshops.
  • A growing and active Buddhism and Psychology Student Union that organizes weekly meditation and yoga classes, discussion groups, invited speakers, movie nights, and social events.
  • A peer-reviewed undergraduate journal, Upaya, published by the Buddhism and Psychology Student Union, that showcases undergraduate writing.
  • A yearly spring conference organized by the Buddhism and Psychology Student Union.
  • The acquisition by the D.G. Ivey library at New College of a growing collection of texts related to Buddhism and psychology available at the University which will facilitate student research and course work.

Many of these activities are the result of past and present collaborators and partners, including the Buddhist Education Foundation for Canada, Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, the Cognitive Science program, Department for the Study of Religion, and the Department of Psychology. The breadth and depth of the activities, current and planned, are a strong indication of the vitality of the minor program and its continued growth.

Student Voices

“Professors in the program are different than in other programs- more understanding and friendly—they smile more, [are] more mindful; you feel less stressful; you are learning more.”

“It’s not just about a mark. No matter what I was feeling, when I had a class in the program, I felt better by the end of the class.”

“In large institutions, it is hard to connect with others in your classes; this program provides an opportunity to connect with others.”

“This minor offers the opportunity for grounding to be used in personal life, especially [a] healthy lifestyle: this is rare at university.”

“The program helps to learn about self-reflection. I haven’t had the opportunity to learn this skill in my major or my other minor.”