Seeking mental health care as a Queer, Trans POC, and that too as an immigrant, is a lot to navigate when mental health is not talked about much in the home, schools, or local community. I was lucky enough to have had access to a resourceful private university that had a mental health care center to get the help I needed at a time of crisis.
Even though I had the knowledge of what mental health care was and the ways to get help, I was blind to accessing the care for myself. Social Work school may be a training ground for many young mental health professionals, but it sure wasn’t a training ground to be able to seek your own care. While being responsible for working with and for people who need help with various aspects of their life, you tend to forget your own needs and wants.
One of the ways in which I received care that was most impactful was group therapy. One on one therapy with a professional is one thing, but it is a different experience when you are part of a group of people who are going through the same things as you. It can be a daunting experience since you don’t know any of these people, yet you are about to share the most intimate details about yourself with them. Like any kind of treatment therapy, it requires a lot of labour, but it can be a very fulfilling and positive experience.
As I got handed the schedule of group sessions I had to attend, it felt like I was in school again. I just hoped it wouldn’t be the same because being in school was what brought me here. I had made the tough and painful decision not to pursue my graduate degree anymore and take time for myself to heal from the many years of unresolved trauma and anxiety. I had wanted to stay in academia so desperately that I neglected all the signs of my mental health deteriorating.
Walking into my first group session felt nerve wracking and started to bring anxiety; however, since I was not required to speak or share about myself, there was much less pressure and I could be in the background. Unlike graduate school, where you can’t really get by without talking to anyone, I went on for days without speaking to anyone during my group therapy sessions. I didn’t know what to say or the right thing to say, I didn’t know if there was a point even in sharing what I was going through to a group of strangers.
After hearing some of my peers’ stories and the similar emotions that they were experiencing, I started to relate with them and felt a need to share my struggles as well. I saw that there was minimum participation from the group therapist to give as much space for the clients. Although I was still nervous and hesitant to share my story, I was realizing that it was necessary to feel more connected to the group. The group members ranged from young students to much older, “accomplished” folks, queer and straight folk, and a few trans people. There were a few white members along with the majority of the staff which made it uncomfortable at times to be around, but I soon started to let that discomfort go.
Along with young students and professionals, I was surprised to have seen such “accomplished” writers, actors, doctors, etc.. sharing similar struggles as I was. I had never thought I could relate to them and so listening to them speak of their moments of crisis and “downfall” made me feel less alone. I heard stories of people experiencing mental health distress, but also how they hoped to overcome them. There were myriad reasons as to why and how they got to where they were, but one thing that was constant and always present was their commitment to getting better and leading a safe and fulfilling life.
It was one of the first few times in my life that I felt close to a group of people and that too in a setting that was challenging to be in. I saw and heard people like me going through the same issues of self-doubt and failure, anxiety and depression, and lack of community. I did not have to attend the same schools or workplace or even be their friend to understand what they were going through. Exchanging our thoughts and feelings around mental health and having the courage to expose ourselves was liberating in and of itself.
Whether we were able to find solutions or the right coping mechanisms, it was the coming together and just listening to each other speak from the heart that was the most enriching experience I could imagine. The space we made for each other through talking, doing various group activities, and sometimes prayer started to make me comfortable with myself and others. Opening up to the group felt unthinkable in the beginning, but as I was consistently getting the support and care that I needed from them, it was becoming more and more possible. By the end of the month-long program, I was secretly hoping I could stay longer and continue connecting with some of the members.
I could have never imagined being so vulnerable with people I did not know and actually felt empowered after participating in the group sessions. I felt proud that I had put myself out there and connected with other queer people like me about my mental health, something that I had barely talked to anyone about. I am still thankful for the opportunity I had to access care like this and that it actually helped me feel better. It truly felt like a miracle, something I had not expected that brought much needed positive change in my life.