By: Annamarie Fuchs, Creator. Partners in Health | Conversations
“Sacred plant knowledge and its benefits are a cultural, therapeutic, and spiritual legacy for humanity and should be preserved for future generations.”
Anja Loizaga-Velder, PhD
Plant based psychedelics have been used for medicinal purposes going back thousands of years. In the early 1950’s reports about the benefits of LSD for example, began to emerge and for a short time, psychedelics enjoyed some attention as having the potential to support psychology and psychiatry, particularly for the treatment of mood disorders, alcohol dependence, and more. After the launch of the ‘war on drugs’ which began in 1971, research was abandoned and the emerging benefits of psychedelic assisted psychotherapy were largely lost. However, since the early 1990’s public support for revisiting the use of psychedelics has been on the rise and today, laws are changing worldwide to allow greater research and access to treatment.
In 2022, Health Canada moved to allow physicians to request restricted psychedelics drugs for patients as part of a more holistic psychotherapy program as a “positive step toward transforming mental-health care” and in 2023 the Canadian Institutes of Health Research were provided Three million dollars to support three clinical trails to examine psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy as a potential treatment option for end-of-life distress in advanced cancer.
When we think about ‘health’ the first thing that comes to mind is often some element of the modern health system, at least in the developed world. And while we enjoy many of the benefits of modern science regarding health and management of disease, across the planet there are traditional, plant-based ways of being and practices that have thrived for generations. Today we are beginning to take notice of and accept that science and nature may be able to converge and respectfully collaborate in ways that will enable greater autonomy, choice, and decision making around health for everyone and particularly in the field of mental health.
Reverdi Darda, founder and CEO of Cena Life, an Edmonton based private company has embarked on exactly that journey. The name ‘Cena’ comes from her commitment to blending science and nature where she blended the last two letters of the word ‘science’ with the first two letters of ‘nature’ as her means to honor her commitment to exploring and offering more options in managing mental health care. Cena Life offers an interdisciplinary approach to psychedelic assisted psychotherapy with a focus specifically on creating an innovative clinical environment where clients can access what is known as the ‘medicine’ as a catalyst to therapy within a program that is supported by expert holistic clinical care from a highly qualified interdisciplinary team. Let’s have a conversation with Reverdi to learn more.
Reverdi, we’ve known each other for years and when you launched Cena Life I was fascinated. Before you tell us more about Cena Life, let’s talk first about what prompted you to choose to work in the mental health and wellness space.
I’ve been in healthcare for more than 30 years and I’ve been blessed with an incredibly diverse career. I’m the first one to admit that many healthcare professionals haven’t had the broad exposure to what we know as ‘healthcare’ that I’ve had. But the roles and opportunities that were presented to me over those 30 years provided a level of comprehensive knowledge that touched acute care, community care, primary care, seniors’ health, health research, and more. That breadth and depth of experience allowed me to recognize the overwhelmingly large number of silos in the system at all levels and that frankly shocked me. I was continually challenged and distressed by the gaps in the way our system has been organized and how that affected the public. Somehow I knew that one day I would find a way to increase my contribution to filling some of those gaps.
It was only when I left the ‘health system’ that I had the opportunity to really explore what I had learned and gained from my career to that point. Despite being part of the system, and even with my knowledge ‘of’ the system, I was surprised at how little I knew about mental health services and the challenges people face in trying to access it. So, once I left the system, I had what I’ll call an awakening about the incomplete and fragmented mental health services that are offered. The inaccessibility of these services coupled with the ongoing stigma that is present across all groups, only highlighted the lack of support for how individuals and families access the care. It’s not that there isn’t innovation in mental health. There is! You do see advancing efforts on the part of leaders in the system to find and deliver the best care. But gaps in terms of funding through the public system alongside the stigma that remains, led me to believe that mental health was a place I could become a champion for the change that is so desperately needed.
My personal decision to focus directly on becoming that champion really stemmed from my own exploration of my mental health as I tried to better understand what my needs or those of my family and friends were and whether we could find the supports that were needed. So, with my own gifts and talents, I knew that I could take that focus, that insight if you will, and become part of creating more innovative and accessible opportunities in mental health care.
I see you as an entrepreneur Reverdi. You talk about your gifts and talents which I believe are what makes you as entrepreneurial as you are. Tell about those gifts and talents.
I’ve never thought of myself in those terms but thank you! From my mind’s eye, I believe an entrepreneur is someone who has a passion, feels it, knows it, and most importantly, has the skill set to bring that passion to life. We all have passions to greater or lesser degrees, but an entrepreneur has that blend – the passion alongside the daily drive to move that passion into action. Mine in particular are associated with a goal of lifelong learning and helping others to help themselves. Those characteristics live within me every day – they have my whole life! And my drive to continue learning and helping others to become more and more capable of helping themselves is what feeds my ambition to find new and unique ways to offer more.
Wow, that’s exactly what we are hoping to achieve this year at Partners in Health | Conversations – to find people like you who are committed to finding ways to help people to become more capable of helping themselves, to become more resilient, adaptable, and ‘well’! Tell me more.
Well, as I mentioned, I do know that one of my gifts is the ability to take my passions and put them into action. I understand though that you can’t move too fast. Despite the needs being tremendously high in our fragmented system, we need to learn and then surround ourselves with the right teams. If you forge ahead too fast, you’ll find yourself forging ahead alone and the end result won’t be as powerful – in my opinion.
If we stifle the opportunities that present themselves to us and don’t take the time to explore new connections, to align with people with those who have a similar passion, we won’t uncover or discover the really innovative ways that we can make a difference in the world. Since starting Cena Life, I fully understand how being an entrepreneur and in acting and actioning your passion is scary! There’s risk every single day and despite having the passion to see the company grow and support more and more people, it takes a lot of courage and time to turn that passion into action.
One thing I’ve learned is that we are ALL born with confidence. It’s a gift we all innately have. You see it in babies and children who are confident, who are brave, and who love to explore. Then something begins to change as we grow up. We start to stifle that confidence. All we need to do as adults is to remind ourselves that the confidence we were born with is still there. We just have to have the courage to resurrect it! So, every day I dig deep and muster up the courage to keep moving forward.
So on that note, tell us about Cena Life! How can Cena Life enable more integrated and hopefully more sustained care and care outcomes for those who struggle with mental health challenges?
When I was thinking about my role as a champion for mental health, I realized that I needed to start in a place of familiarity – for me that’s the clinical setting. Cena Life is a service organization. Our focus is on delivering services in the clinical setting for individuals seeking help with their mental health and offering them a variety of psychiatric interventions.
Psychiatric interventions, delivered from a clinical standpoint, was something I knew something about. Mental health is not only defined by clinical interventions alone, but good holistic mental health support must include counselling and community-based services. Those are essential to a mental health delivery system being effective but again, my focus is on delivering and increasing access to innovative clinical services.
I need to pause briefly and talk about accessibility. Today we have medications available that support many people. They are important and they work well for a lot of individuals. But up to 50% of those people can become resistant to those medications and when that happens, where do they go and how can they access the care they need? That’s the challenge. What else is available and even an option?
So, when I go back to my own gifts and experience coming out of a complex healthcare system, I knew I wanted to build a bridge between innovation in science and nature. Cena Life was designed to find ways to do exactly that. Science offers us vast innovative approaches and research potential. And nature does as well! There is so much extraordinary potential in the natural world that has been lost in the developed world. In the last 20 years we are finally beginning to revisit that potential. Our understanding of molecules in nature / in plants is emerging rapidly but that’s only one part of the ‘nature’ equation. We have to remember that human beings are incredibly unique, and each of us has our own human ‘nature’ that requires diversity and innovation to meet our needs. Cena Life offers psychedelic assisted psychotherapy within an interdisciplinary team environment. We offer what we call the medicine alongside required clinical care components in an interdisciplinary approach that is essential to optimize outcomes. And that, frankly, is our biggest struggle. The way healthcare has evolved and the gatekeeping that exists, has made the interdisciplinary environment difficult to establish and access. But at Cena Life, because we are not embedded in the health system, we are able to offer that unique team environment. Interdisciplinary teams can work together in ways that are truly innovative – where we each contribute our own unique skills sets and experiences as pieces of the whole – much like a tapestry or a patchwork quilt if you will. That is exactly what individuals need. When they seek help that acknowledges the individual gifts of everyone involved, it sets the stage for being respected as unique in their own right and ultimately, creates a wellness environment that truly becomes a state of being. That’s how I’d describe Cena Life.
When I look at your website, it’s clear to me that you are already offering some tremendously important services. One thing that also got my attention was your company’s desire to ‘pay it forward.’ Tell me a bit about that.
When I am innovating in a space that lacks access – and that’s what we are trying to do every day at Cena Life – I look at the barriers that currently exist, identify what those barriers are, and find ways to chip away at them. And frankly, in any clinical service, access is the biggest barrier to almost any level of care and it’s a tremendously difficult barrier to overcome in mental health.
We started looking at the barriers associated with accessibility and asked each other – are they perceived or real? And if they are real, how can we contribute in meaningful ways to removing some of them?
The cost of care was the big barrier that came to light for us. Some people have some third-party insurance, but most doesn’t provide adequate coverage for the unique interdisciplinary services we offer. Based on that, people are forced to pay for service out of pocket. Unfortunately, most private care with a robust interdisciplinary team can be out of reach in terms of cost for so many people. I realized however, that there is a vast community of people who are passionate about helping others. So, at Cena Life we knew that we needed to find a way to enable those people to help others.
I knew that we would need to do our part to network and negotiate with third party insurance organizations, but individuals also needed an opportunity to find places and spaces for giving back. The ’pay it forward’ concept came almost immediately to mind.
Cena Life is able to receive private donations. Those donations are then pooled to support clients who have limited funds, and this enables them to have financial support to access a clinical service that we can offer at Cena Life – a clinical service that may otherwise be out of reach for them. Our ‘pay it forward’ mechanism is growing slowly but it’s growing! As we continue to work to strengthen awareness of Cena Life across social media and other marketing platforms, we will be able to expand our support for building that reciprocity in our community. And over time, we know that the community will reach out more and more to enable more individuals to access services that are so desperately needed. At the end of the day, it’s one of our values – we strive to consciously connect our community.
I am so proud to know you Reverdi, and thank you for allowing me the time to better understand what drove you to launch Cena Life. In closing let’s talk about health and wellness. You’re a very busy lady. How do you maintain the balance that you need in your life? What does health and wellness mean to you?
That’s an interesting question. As I’ve gotten older – with a 30 plus career in healthcare, married, and a mother to two adult children, I’ve accumulated life experiences that have really changed how I view those terms.
I see ‘health’ and ‘wellness’ as two parts of a whole. Health refers more to my physical status, so I automatically think about how I maintain an optimal state of functioning at any age. For me that’s swimming and other forms of exercise, rest, and other choices I can make to lessen the likelihood and the burden of disease. At this stage of my life, I am more and more conscious all the time that I need to focus on being mindful about how I take care of this body. That’s ‘health’ for me.
I see wellness as something a bit broader and more elusive. It’s that quality of life where there is not only an absence of illness from all points of view – biological, spiritual, and emotional, and more. It’s also a sense of contribution, connection, and community. For example, volunteering and being part of a community fills my emotional bucket. Having conversations like this one with you fills my bucket. Helping others to help themselves through learning, building relationships, and networking… all of those feed me and fill what I call my wellness bucket. At the end of the day, it’s about finding balance in a modern world that doesn’t automatically allow for a lot of balance. And at the end of the day, we need courage to choose balance, to learn to say no and to find the right things to say yes to!
But something that many of us have set aside and something that I am revisiting is the cultural component of wellness. As a Métis woman, I am learning more and more about the importance of culture as a driver for wellbeing, for innovation, and for experiencing completeness. As a result, it’s become essential to me that I spend time learning about other cultures and walks of life while celebrating my own history and culture.
So, I guess that’s a long way of saying that health and wellness are both a work in progress. I am learning to blend my need to optimize the physical health of my body, but I am also learning that the spiritual component, psychological component, and my cultural identify all serve to create an experience of overall wellness for me.
Reverdi, thank you SO much for this remarkable, deeply personal, and insightful interview! The last words are yours. What would you like to leave us with?
Thank you, Annamarie! Well, as I think about Cena Life today and into the future and all the work, I’m doing that I’m passionate about, I want to point out the importance of the cultural context that we all bring to our communities and in our interactions with each other. I need to acknowledge with respect, the Indigenous way of life and its contributions to our society. We need to find collaborative spaces and opportunities to strengthen our shared knowledge and understanding of each other. When we think about how to blend the miracle of nature with science, Indigenous knowledge and ways of being must be recognized as a critical first step in achieving our shared advancement as people in the modern world.
I have a project underway at Cena Life with Siksika Health Services where we are exploring how to bring innovation in mental health, particularly psychedelic assisted psychotherapy together with Indigenous health. We will be exploring over time, plant medicine and the cultural elements that are embedded in the history of Indigenous medicine. We are co-creating a program takes the best of the current science with what we know about our work. It’s an emerging and exciting project and what I can say so far is that we are learning from each other!!
 Carhart-Harris, R.L. and Goodwin, G.M. The Therapeutic Potential of Psychedelic Drugs: Past, Present, and Future. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2017 oct; 42(11) 2015 – 2113. Published online 2017 May 17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5603818/