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Finding Mental Succor

May/21/2023 / by Pratika Yashaswi

A South Asian woman’s guide to choosing the right therapist

Woman in a pensive mood
Woman in a pensive mood

More people are talking about mental health now, and the internet and awareness campaigns have done loads to help with that. We’re told “it’s OK to ask for help!” even though some parents still say things like “Don’t waste your time and money on such things (therapy); you just need to be stronger.” If we’re unable to push ourselves, chances are, a good friend (or a meme) will urge us to overcome our hesitations. We’re fortunately at a place in the zeitgeist where we don’t have to be so embarrassed about needing help any more.

But if you’re a South Asian woman in the West, it’s not as simple as picking up the phone and making an appointment with a therapist that someone referred. Modern therapy (and therapists) are still embedded in a very colonial school of thought that does not acknowledge nor address the cultural nuances of what it means to be a South Asian in the West. For instance, religion, ethnicity and values around family and marriage are poorly understood by non-South Asian professionals.

Further, the journey toward healing is not a straight route for most of us. It takes a lot of trial and error, personal effort, and social support to overcome our hardest challenges. But fortunately, whether you know your exact problem, suspect you have a disorder, or just want to work through a difficult time, the first step is always a therapist.

We’ve put together a short guide to finding a therapist and getting on that path today.

Understanding Your Needs

The first step is self-reflection. Understand your emotional state and the kind of support you desire. Are you struggling with family pressures, marital issues, or personal anxiety? Are you wondering if your sudden lack of energy and enthusiasm could be depression? Get out a pen and paper and do a bit of journaling. This will help you clarify your thoughts when you meet your therapist.

Your need might range from individual therapy to couples counseling, family therapy, or group therapy. Understanding the different mental health professionals, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers, and their areas of expertise is basic, but crucial. Less crucial, but also perhaps important to know, is the kind of therapy that resonates with you: do you think you might benefit from cognitive behavior therapy, or are you looking for psychoanalysis? Do you want to go a softer route, like mindfulness-based therapy or art therapy? There are plenty of options out there, and you can look up their modalities if you have the bandwidth.

Starting Your Search

Searching for a therapist has never been easier. Someone you know and trust probably already goes to one. But if you want to be discreet, your best bet is Google. Online directories like Psychology Today, South Asian Mental Health Initiative & Network (SAMHIN), and southasiantherapists.org are good places to start. Your insurance provider may also have a list of in-network therapists. If you don’t have the time to commute to a therapist’s office, or don’t have a South Asian therapist in your area, teletherapy might be right for you.

Evaluating Potential Therapists

When evaluating potential therapists, look for their credentials, qualifications, and experience. But it is also important to find someone who has a solid understanding of South Asian cultures and the unique challenges you may face, These may include cultural identity issues, immigration stress, or intergenerational trauma. But being South Asian isn’t the only criterion. When you zero in on some options, also look into the types of therapy they practice. A good therapist will adapt different types of therapeutic practices to your unique needs. Look up transactional analysis, psychoanalysis, internal family systems, cognitive therapy and dialectical behavior therapy. These will give you some insights into what might work for your situation. Further considerations: are they trauma informed? Where were they trained, and what are their credentials? There are many different factors to weigh.

The Initial Consultation

Once you’ve decided upon a therapist (or two), the trial and error begins. Be patient.

The initial consultation is your opportunity to gauge if a therapist is right for you. Prepare for this session by listing any questions you have about the process, and about their experience dealing with clients with your specific issues. Although it might be hard to open up to a complete stranger if you’re doing this for the first time, be frank about your mental health history and your goals from therapy. This session will help you assess your comfort level with the therapist, their communication style, and if you feel a sense of trust. Go with your gut feeling here, though note that it takes a few sessions to get truly comfortable and really understand if the style of therapy is working for you.

After consulting with your first therapist, you have a couple of options: you can shop around and consider a few others, or decide to give the therapist you’ve chosen some time.

Tips for a Successful Therapy Experience

Once you’ve chosen a therapist, it’s time to focus on making the most of your therapy experience. Establish clear goals and expectations with your therapist, keep open communication lines, and understand that progress takes time and patience. Your therapist will ask you hard questions, push you out of your comfort zone and sometimes even give you homework! Engage with the process.

Remember, your therapist is only part of your healing process. You are the most important component. Any time you feel a shift in perspective, or an intangible but fully present lightness within yourself, know that “it” is working. Take a deep breath, and carry on.