I have always prided myself on having a strong network of mentors and sponsors, who have been there for me to give me career advice, support through tough decisions and open doors through their endorsement. However, starting a business in the middle of the pandemic brought new challenges and questions that at times even I couldn’t articulate well enough to ask for support from anyone in my network. Moreover, everyone was overwhelmed by the pandemic, and the thought of me burdening them with my existential problems just seemed selfish and insensitive, and so I decided to look for help outside my normal social circles.
Embarking on therapy is never an easy decision for various reasons – accessibility, inequalities or stigma – being some. Even more so, when we embark on therapy it *somehow* means admitting to the world that there is something wrong with us and that we need ‘treatment’. Instead, I agree with Dr Dainius Puras, a psychiatrist and a UN special rapporteur on the right to health that we should use terms ‘support’ and ‘care’ to move away from this notion of therapy to ‘fix a disorder’. Adrian Massey, an occupational physician and author of Sick Note Britain: How Social Problems Became Medical Issues, supports this by saying that as mental health awareness grows there is a danger of repackaging emotions as illnesses.
My decision to embark on therapy was further facilitated by something I can only refer to as a ‘physical and mental shutdown’ induced by prolonged stress. Here I want to pause for a moment and clarify that ‘stress’ is not necessarily a constant state of worry or emotional instability. Even more insidious are the everyday stresses we put onto our bodies, minds and brain that most of us don’t even notice. These include lack of nutritious diet, movement and fresh air, excessive screen time and lack of screen breaks, excessive consumption of alcohol, drugs or other chemical substances and more.
More than anything, I was looking for a safe space to unload everything on my mind and having someone to help me make sense out of all of it. I like to refer to my therapist as an ‘emotional coach’.
We preach and celebrate career and executive coaches. When we hear of someone in a senior position having a coach or a mentor, we find that very mature and praise it. We see coaches as people helping others to get “unstuck” in their careers, help them become better leaders, advance their emotional intelligence (EQ) and reach the next stage in their lives. But isn’t that exactly what a therapist does for our mental health? Yet, the moment someone mentions a therapist, we give the person a side-eye. Kind of a double standard, isn’t it?
Nevertheless, in many cultures discussing mental health is still taboo, which prevents people of all ages and genders from getting the preventative help that they need, until their mental health has worsened to a state of both mental and physical illness.
When people finally do gather the courage to show up for therapy, they find the NHS being overloaded. (Currently, the NHS aims to start a patient on mental health treatment within 6 to 18 weeks of referral.) This makes it feel as though depression or anxiety disorders are not urgent. However, that is not how it feels to those experiencing them. What might sound at first like a ‘mild’ problem can fundamentally impact most areas of someone’s life. Additionally, the added pressure on the NHS staff, who are trying to cram more sessions into their day, could jeopardise the quality of treatment.
When it comes to quality of treatment, unfortunately, it tends to differ for patients of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. According to DiversityUK in 2018 about 13.8% of the UK population was from a minority ethnic background with London having 40% of its population from the Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. While the BAME community is far more likely than white people to experience mental ill-health, they also have poorer outcomes from therapy.
A survey conducted by the charity Mind found that one-third of respondents believed that current therapy in the UK was not fit for the BAME community. One of the key reasons for this is poor understanding of cultural differences from a majority white training institute. As a result, many seek therapy outside the NHS with such organisations as Black Minds Matter, Sakoon and HealHub.
Sophie Williams, a niqab-wearing Muslim woman, in an essay called On Therapy (published in Cut From The Same Cloth?) wrote that while in therapy, her initial goal of “learning to re-associate after dissociating, and reducing her insomnia” shifted to “convincing her therapist that she was not at risk of radicalisation…” just because her therapist was prejudiced and lacked cultural context to treat and support a Muslim woman.
You don’t need a mental health diagnosis and no problem is too small to start a therapy session. However, to ensure you get the most out of these sessions, ensure you trust your innermost feelings and emotions to someone you connect with. It is okay to switch your therapist if you feel you are struggling in building that therapeutic alliance with them; therapists know they may not be the best fit for every client. It can actually cause more harm than good if you stick with a therapist that lacks emotional and cultural intelligence.
For example, I tried two British therapists before I realised that even though I have become fluent in British culture and have skilfully navigated it over the past decade, it wasn’t the same the other way round. Even though I have not lived in my country of origin for over 10 years, I found that there were a lot of cultural nuances and history I did not have to explain to a native Latvian therapist. Some things she just got without anything being said. So, yes, cultural intelligence matters. (More on this check out my conversation with Ritika Wadhwa on the next page.)
Equally, it is important to keep in mind that therapy is not a “quick fix”. To reap the full benefits, you have to do work beyond these sessions and evolve your lifestyle, i.e., understand the importance of sleep, exercise, healthy diet and digital detox to support your mental wellbeing goals.
Though looking after your mental wellbeing is not as ‘mainstream trendy’ as wearing the latest yoga set when you hit the gym to look after your physical health, mental health is a human right and should be normalised as one.
Article: Mental Health is Human Right: https://www.newstatesman.com/spotlight/healthcare/2020/05/why-mental-health-human-right
Article: Importance of Culturally Intelligent Therapist: https://www.verywellhealth.com/culturally-sensitive-therapist-mental-health-5192817
Podcast: Everyday Leadership E33 with Sope Agbelusi and psychotherapist Marteka Swaby: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/everyday-leadership/id1467901267?i=1000517967807
Book: Cut From The Same Cloth? Muslim Women on Life in Britain: https://www.waterstones.com/book/cut-from-the-same-cloth/sabeena-akhtar/9781783529445