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On Therapy and Therapizing - A South Asian Perspective

“Tum kiya pagalon ka illaaj karo gi?”  Are you going to treat crazy people? 

I faced this question multiple times, especially at age 18 when I first suggested that I might major in Psychology (and yes, I say “suggested” because this desi girl did not assert herself, particularly to her parents). I felt strongly that this was my calling, but there was much skepticism along the way. Not only did I have to work hard in school, but my father demanded Excel spreadsheets on what the professional scope looks like, how much psychologists make, and what kind of job opportunities I would have with a Master’s or a Doctorate. I had to prove why I was getting a doctoral degree in something while not practicing as a “real doctor”, because, you know, MD or bust. Even now as a professor, my students have looked up in surprise to see a younger woman of color walk in to teach doctoral level courses in psychology, a field that has been traditionally dominated by older White men. 

So if there was so much push back on why I was pursuing a degree in mental health, it’s no wonder that seeking mental health services in the South Asian community carries so much stigma and shame. And also distrust – given that my professors and peers in grad school were mostly White, I wondered if my brown brothers and sisters were all off getting their medical degrees or if therapy really is just a “White people thing”?  I have so many desi friends and family and clients who have brought this up as a reason for not seeking treatment, and my reminder to them is always this: what about priests and rabbis and maulvis and pirs and gurus and shamans and muftis? Across all cultures, there have been community leaders, or elders in the family, that people have trusted and go to for sage words and comfort, that go back centuries. And no, I’m not referring to the proverbial Aunty who provides unsolicited advice on everything from making the most exceptional moong ki daal to beauty tips for fairer skin to 3 things you must do to make your spouse happy to how to resolve conflicts with colleagues at work (because hey, it’s 2020 and Aunty ‘s advice is keeping up with the times). Having mental health issues, relational problems, moods swings, are all a side effect of being human. Seeking treatment for them is not a new phenomenon, a White phenomenon, a “this generation” phenomenon, or phenomenon.  But the desire to appear “perfect” and “well adjusted” is a particular kind of  garment that South Asians put on neatly, generation after generation, to hide the wounds of abuse, neglect, trauma, attachment issues,  depression, anxiety, family conflicts, etc. Underneath, we wrap ourselves up in shame and guilt and decide stoic silence is better than talking to a trained professional because if the word got out, log kiya kahengay? What will people say? 

As a Clinical Psychologist, I opened up my practice CORE in Chicago, where we have a large South Asian community, in hopes that I could my accessible to my people.  My clients from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Burma come in all shapes and sizes, with a wide range of problems and diagnoses.  Some feel comforted by the fact that I share a similar background, or if they speak Urdu/Hindi, share the same language, and they don’t have to explain every cultural nuance. Others come in asking me all kinds of questions about my personal life, wanting to assess my values, my background, my heritage, before exposing theirs. Some people come in for a few sessions and then leave, others I’ve been seeing for years. I tell them going to therapy is like going to the gym; you may decide “I want to lose 10 lbs” and then you go work out and then you’re done once you reach your goal weight, or it may become a lifestyle where you continue to engage in health and wellness for the rest of your life.  My goal as a therapist is not to tell you what I think you should do, like recommend that you cut off ties completely with your dysfunctional family or to tell you that you need to compromise and endure abuse to save your marriage or suggest that your read this verse in scripture to find solace or to prescribe gender role expectations to be a better son/father/husband/brother/daughter/mother/wife/sister/whatever. My goal is to simply help empower you to make choices that feel right for you, not just to help your relationships with others, but also to help you in your relationship with yourself.  So if you’re thinking about talking to a therapist, I invite you to trust that feeling, even if you’re unsure about whether or not you have a “problem” to begin with. You have something to say, and we have the space to hear it. 

Dr. Ammara Khalid 

Licensed Clinical Psychologist 

CORE – Center of Relational Empowerment, P.C 

[email protected]

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