Season 02: Episode 08: Cheryl Leong Transcript
Queer Diagnosis Podcast
Season 02: Episode 08: Cheryl Leon
[Theme music plays]
Zarya: This is Queer Diagnosis. I'm your host Zarya, my pronouns are she, her, hers.
Srihita: I'm Srihita and my pronouns are also she, her, hers. Our guest today is Cheryl Leon, a marriage and family therapist and founder of Leading with Consciousness. Hi Miss Leon, could you please introduce yourself with your pronouns.
Miss Leon: I'm Cheryl pronouns she/they.
Zarya: Could you tell us a little bit about where you're from?
Miss Leon: I currently live on Ohlone land occupied by San Francisco, and I'm an immigrant from Singapore.
Zarya: So, what inspired you to become a marriage and family therapist?
Miss Leon: Therapy runs in my family; my mother is a psychotherapist and became a psychotherapist sometime in her 40s. So, I was already a teenager, and this was in the context of Singapore and so I think seeing her work and how interesting and inspiring that kind of work was kind of propelled me on the journey of, "oh hey psychology is really interesting," and then from there, psychotherapy.
Zarya: I think that's really cool that you said that your family is mostly in therapy because I wish my family was mostly in therapy. I think that's great that you are able to kind of continue that lineage and when people think of healthcare, they may not initially think of therapy. So, do you consider yourself a healthcare professional, and how has your experience as a counselor vary between Singapore and the United States?
Miss Leon: Yeah. Gosh, I have a long answer to that. I think that the separation of mind and body was something strictly from Euro-American tradition. When you look at all other indigenous cultures, non-western cultures the mind and body were never separate. When you talk about mental health, it is never separate from physical health. If you go to see an acupuncturist, for example, in China they will also be your psychiatrist. You may have a pain in your chest, but they will connect it to something that's emotionally happening and something energetic happening and so the mind and body were never separate. The whole notion that psychotherapy is not healthcare really comes from a Euro-Western construct. It's taken Euro American mental health as an institution, and as a field of study, generations to get to the point where they're finally seeing that there are all these connections between mind and body. If you're depressed your hormones are different, there's swelling in the body, there's all this biological evidence showing that your emotional health is deeply connected to your body and that the separation of mind and body was probably something that has held Western psychotherapy back in terms of understanding mental health. I think that it was this product of severing mind and body that's led to how mental health is seen as separate from everything else in medical health care, which I think is deeply problematic. I think what has also made it complicated, specifically in the United States, is insurance companies. Health insurance companies actually separate mental health care from the rest of healthcare, and sometimes they separate the networks. I think that because so much of our healthcare system, and mental health care system, has been dictated by health insurance companies for so many decades now, it's been so profit-driven that mental health care has never been given priority by insurance companies. Something like psychotherapy should be seen as preventive care, for example. Even if your symptoms aren't clinically significant enough to meet the criteria for a diagnosis, psychotherapy can be preventative care, for example. That could be one way that we could look at it, but because health insurance companies have structured everything so horribly and it doesn't maximize the benefit for patients or people who need mental health care. We're being dictated by these health care or insurance health care systems that aren't really serving mental health at all. They're mostly serving insurance, health care profits. That's the long answer to what you just asked.
Srihita: I think it's really interesting that you talk about the connection between mind and body because when I was first in therapy Zarya and I talked about this. One of the first questions my therapist would ask me when something happened was "how did it feel in your body?" The idea of contextualizing my mental health, within how I felt in my physical body felt like such a foreign practice. I think sometimes I still have to kind of remind myself to do it, or if I'm feeling something I have to be like okay this is because of my mental health. So, that's been a practice I've definitely been trying to work on. I was wondering if you had any clients who had a similar response when you were trying to explain that connection, where they were like "what are you talking about?"
Miss Leon: Yeah, even that question, "How does that feel in your body?" This is like a more recent psychotherapy type thing to ask. If you look at how psychotherapy was in the time of Freud, he probably wasn't asking that in Victorian Europe. I don't normally start with that question; I think it really depends on where the client is. There are many open doors to doing psychotherapy, and every client has an open door. Some people have their cognition as an open door, some people have their behavior as an open door. Some of them have emotions as an open door and some people have their physical sensations or bodily senses as an open door. So, depending on where the client is, how they come into the therapy room, and how they start talking about what's going on for them, that tells me what the open door is. All these things are connected: mind, body, cognition, everything is connected. The question is: what the open door for my client is and what is sort of the entryway for us to connect. So, it is a strange question to ask when we think of traditional psychotherapy. It's amazing that this is such a new question for Western psychotherapy. All these indigenous cultures for 1000s of years, even if you look at Taoism which existed in East Asia a couple of 1000 years ago, were already asking this question and understanding emotions and mental health from the viewpoint of not just the body but also the environment, of how your emotions are connected to the wind, the water, the ecosystem. All these things were energetic and connected in your communities, how human beings were connected. All these concepts are just beginning to be understood from an empirical scientific mental health point of view, in the West. Again, traditionally all these other cultures have understood this for a long time and have had such deep wisdom around it. I think that Western mental health has had arrogance because it comes from this European colonial history and has never seen the rest of the world as having anything valuable, aside from something you can objectify or take or appropriate in some way. I think that people are beginning to see that it's not just a mind-body connection. It's also community, relational connections, and the ecosystem, and how all of that connects to your emotional and mental health. Another long answer to that.
Zarya: I'm learning a lot because like that question that Srihita asked, "Where do you feel it in your body?" I hate that question because I can never really answer it. I was just wondering, so you're talking about this, as you've also worked in Singapore as well, right? If this question is relatively new in America, what kind of questions would you ask somebody in Singapore at this point in time?
Miss Leon: Well, Singapore is an English-speaking country and has gone through the history of British colonization. It's very much globalized and very much influenced by European tradition. I see a mix of the two going on, and when I was practicing there were people who understood what mental health was from a western point of view. They would come into therapy already beginning to talk about the mind, they would have a harder time connecting the body to the mind. There were people who wouldn't see a psychotherapist right away. They would instead feel something in their body and go see their doctor. Their doctors would be the ones going, okay you've got pain in your chest, you have a headache, or you've got a stomachache. You're having trouble sleeping, you have a lot of energy at night right. They go into the doctor's office, and they have these complaints. The doctor then was the one who determined you might need some counseling or some psychotherapy because these sound like also emotional things that might be connected. So, these are the clients that I would see that would already have an understanding of what the doctor has already told me. These are also emotional things, so I would work closely with their doctor, with a religious figure- if the religious figure was part of their life- or their families or community. It was a very different way of working. Now that I've worked here in San Francisco, and I work with a lot of Asian American families, I think depending on where people are, I see similar things as well. So, it just depends on that open door. Where is the client? How are they coming into the therapy room? And the mind-body question really is kind of a coin toss. I'm not sure where people are when they come in until I get to know them a little bit.
Zarya: You're referring to this idea of walking to a therapy room a lot. I haven't walked into a therapy room personally because I started therapy on Zoom. So, how are you able to gauge that with the pandemic? Is it the same feel, like how they get on Zoom, how they behave with you at the beginning?
Miss Leon: I can't say for sure. Sometimes it's in the language that they use, vocabulary. Even though I'm only looking at a person from the chest up, I can see things in their facial expression, the jawline, what muscles are tightening up. Sometimes I see shoulders kind of towards their ears, so there's tension right there. Sometimes they're sitting like they have their head jutting out and their neck uncomfortable, so I could tell that tension is being held that way. Looking at what's going on, even chest up gives me a sense of what's happening. Then when I do more of the mindfulness practices or body-based practices that involve breathing or muscle consciousness, progressive muscle relaxation, it gives people an understanding of where stress is held in their body and the difference between holding something in your muscle versus letting it go. Helping people understand how the body is so deeply connected to all these different emotions, takes some time. In particular with anxiety, it is so much like a body thing when you're hyperventilating. You're not even breathing all the way in, you're hyperventilating. If you have tension in your belly, sometimes people have been anxious for so long, they have felt this tension in their belly for so long, they don't even know it's there anymore. And it's become something they've tolerated for years and years. So, helping people get to the point where they're like relaxing their belly muscles for the first time and then noticing what it means to be tense. Something like that helps people see, "wow my life could be without this tension. This is the level of discomfort I've been living with my whole life; how can I learn to know I have a right to be more relaxed? Okay, I didn't know that." That's how I work with the body.
Zarya: I feel like I'm getting the answer key to what my therapist has been doing for over a year now. I kind of wish I had this before therapy ended today for me. Can you tell us a little bit more about how COVID specifically has affected your work as a counselor?
Miss Leon: Because I work so much with the Asian population east Asians and Southeast Asians, with the COVID-19 discrimination and Stop Asian Hate movement. I've seen a collective trauma around what's been going on and having to do this over zoom versus seeing people in person has been a transition for me because I'm used to someone physically coming into my room. Now, I have to make do with a video screen. That was a transition, even learning how to use Zoom was tough. I was so resistant to the technology. Now I'm comfortable with it, but I definitely feel that people got a lot more from me when they saw me in person. I think those were the major differences in terms of what's happened since COVID-19. I went through the SARS outbreak in Singapore back in 2002, and it was a similar situation. It sort of gave us a glimpse as to how this would happen in the future, but there was no zoom back then. People would come into your therapy room with a mask on and then I would disinfect my couch and wash my hands after each person came in. There was no zoom option, so having this zoom option was a relief for me because I remember back in 2002 when there wasn't all this technology, and you couldn't use video chat back then or people didn't think that it was possible back then. It was pretty stressful in Asia at the time, as a therapist you were sort of an essential worker. So, I remember between then and now I think this was a lot safer to be behind the video camera.
Srihita: I think you touched on the collective trauma because you do work with so many East Asian and Southeast Asian clients. Can you talk about your own experiences with anti-Asian rhetoric in the workplace, and maybe even in your personal life, if you feel comfortable talking about that?
Miss Leon: In my other life as a DEI consultant, I've put out information on what to do in workplaces. It's anecdotal, but I hear so many stories of, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, where people were racializing this virus so much. They were talking about China, and how this was a China virus that the former president went on and on about its connection to China. The World Health Organization put out a recommendation to not racialize this virus because of the stigma, and misinformation that people could have. So, I think that there have been insensitive statements in the workplace. There are discriminatory things that happened in the workplace for East Asians and Asians. Very similar to post 911, where there was a trauma and people became really Islamophobic. People were racially profiled and there were jokes at work and insensitive statements at work. These were irrational xenophobic things, but I think specifically with COVID-19 people really needed a scapegoat. That was happening in the workplace through jokes, subtle things, or sometimes really direct aggressions. I've tried my best to tell people, organizational leaders, you've got to make zero tolerance type policies very openly and make open statements about this. You've got to give Asian employees a safe space to be able to report these things, and for managers to have the skills to create psychological safety for their teams and make it safe for people to actually tell their managers this is happening, can you help me. These are the different things that I've put out as a DEI consultant, psychological safety at work is such a huge thing for me. It's been a long ride; it's been a year and a half of advocating for this. I remember putting the first panel out in March, right when the pandemic started because that's when we started seeing hate crimes and discriminatory things. It's been a long ride.
Zarya: Do you think that the initiatives you've taken have improved workplaces so far, is it getting better?
Miss Leon: It's hard to tell, I wish there was a better way to measure the things that I'm doing. I know that I've seen organizations put out statements. I've had HR managers tell me it was really helpful and they're going to implement some of these things. Some Asian employees that attend my workshops, or have heard me speak, some of the employee resource groups, have reached out to me to thank me for the stuff I do. I don't know if I've made an impact. I just know that I'm making connections. I just know that it's been a rough ride. Not a lot of people took it seriously at the start of the pandemic, even though it was happening in my neighborhood, and all these discriminatory things were happening, violence was happening. It wasn't taken seriously until a little later. I think it was the beginning of this year where people started taking it more seriously, and unfortunately, even then I think the momentum has not been maintained and people have forgotten that these things are still happening. The numbers are still going up, they're not going down at all in terms of violence or discrimination, all those reports are still going on not just in the United States, but in Australia, Canada. The report seems to be just relentless in terms of numbers. I'm not sure if I've made an impact, but I'm trying.
Zarya: I mean I can definitely say that from your podcast episodes I've listened to, it wasn't the first time that I had been reading about Asian hate in the news, but I didn't know anybody personally who had been experiencing it. Until one of my classmates came back from a lab, our campus didn't mandate vaccines and didn't say you have to wear your mask. Well actually they did, but not everyone was following that rule. But long story short, my friend was walking back home from class, and he was wearing his mask and another student just walked up to him. I'm not gonna repeat the word that he said, but he basically ridiculed him for wearing the mask and he said some hateful things. At that point I was like, this is actually a problem that's relevant to the people that I know. Not that I didn't care about it more, but then I started to do more research. This is how I came across your podcast, and your podcast really helped me understand why it is important that we Stop Asian Hate, and how do we address that. As a student, I'm not sure what structural changes I can make. Do you have any advice for what I can do to Stop Asian Hate?
Miss Leon: Yeah, I always make it a point to say, if you want to stop Asian Hate, you have to stop all kinds of Asian hate. Whether it's Islamophobia towards South Asians or West Asians, or COVID-19 discrimination towards East Asians or Southeast Asians, or just looking at the exploitation of labor overseas. I think that Stop Asian Hate is a global thing that we can look at it as a really huge continent with a lot of diverse populations. So, there's a lot of different kinds of hatred to work on. I think in particular COVID-19 discrimination, where the virus is being racialized towards specifically Chinese hatred and anti-Chinese sentiment, I think that the more we deracialize the virus, the more we speak up about deracializing it and resisting the direction that hatred tends to go. I think with US-China relations continuing to get tenser. I mean the tensions have always been there, even prior to COVID-19. US-China relations have always been a little tense. I think with this particular situation with a pandemic like that and the trauma associated with the virus, and the human mind just needing a scapegoat. There's trauma involved, then a scapegoat. Just like 911, there's a trauma, we need a scapegoat. If everybody can, even a small posting on social media, say, "I'm deracializing this virus, I do not agree with anyone who associates this virus with the Chinese or anything this is a human virus." Any statement like that, that deracializes the virus is going to destigmatize our communities right now. In the same way that anybody would stand up against Islamophobia or stand up for Black Lives Matter. I think the same energy that we put towards any kind of social movement to change minds, change hearts, to collaboratively create an organized dismantling of systems that create these racist situations, to begin with. I think anything like that would be really helpful.
Srihita: So, we were looking at your website and you listed different approaches that you use based on different clients. Can you explain whichever approaches that you want to talk about?
Miss Leon: Okay, let me think a little bit. I think what is getting more, I wouldn't say trendier, but I think more therapists are beginning to adopt a social justice approach to psychotherapy, a systemic lens perhaps at looking at mental health symptoms. Looking at something like race-based trauma, oppression-based trauma, and taking a pro-liberation approach to psychotherapy. That is something that I've been encouraging other therapists to take on. Oftentimes mental health symptoms don't happen in a vacuum, they happen in the context of a relationship, a family, a community, and a larger society. If we look at symptoms in the context of a larger societal system, it's impossible to separate that from systemic racism, or systemic homophobia, systemic transphobia, systemic sexism, patriarchy, systemic white supremacy. All these things impact the psyche of a client, and so my approach to this is examining internalized oppression, examining how a client is navigating the world, supporting this lived experience of oppression, and talking about what it means to truly psychologically liberate from these structures and systems. How to navigate systems that aren't necessarily designed for me to thrive and grow and be emotionally healthy, if there's a system that is designed for your life to be shortened, in some way versus other people. If society has designed things so that you don't have as much privilege as others, how can I navigate a world like that, still thrive, still be happy and still have an emotional life that's meaningful and fulfilling? I think that understanding societal systems and their impact on the human psyche is something that I really have adopted in my practice, working with Asian Americans as well as LGBTQ plus folks, immigrants. So that's something that I really feel very passionately about, and I hope that psychotherapy continues to grow in these areas.
Zarya: So, as a therapist through this time, I'm sure it's been at least traumatic, or it's affected you in some way. How have you been answering those questions for yourself of keeping yourself happy, being able to support yourself?
Miss Leon: Yeah, that's always a question. Self-care, making sure that I end the day, well, I don't carry things with me, I'm taking care of my own mental health, my own emotional health, and my physical health, making sure I have my connections, my relationships, my community, making sure I still do things that I enjoy. I love playing with my son; I love doing things in the backyard; I love painting. I have all these hobbies that I still hold on to. All those things keep me alive and hopefully thriving as much as possible, even though of course my mental health has been affected by this pandemic and with all the Asian hatred. It's impacted me, but I have my own therapist, my own friends, network, and family. I try to keep healthy that way.
Zarya: I think I once saw a comic strip from the New Yorker that said, "you go to therapy and then the therapist goes to their therapist and so on so forth," but I think that's really important. I think everyone should have a therapist, and I'm sure that you would agree as well.
Miss Leon: It was a requirement for me to get my license, I had to have a certain number of hours of having seen a therapist before I got my license, or to qualify for a licensing exam. I think most, I want to say, the majority of programs require that, if you're in training to be a therapist, you also see a therapist for X number of hours before you can graduate. That's a cool thing, I think.
Zarya: I had no idea that was a thing, but that's so cool. Also, does it feel like a grade if you're in therapy, but they're counting the hours? Does it feel like you have to perform in that situation?
Miss Leon: I didn't, I felt like it's my excuse to get some therapy, and to have someone analyze my childhood, my emotional life. I had some support through my psychotherapy training, so it was a really positive thing for me.
Zarya: Okay, that's really cool. Can you speak to what it means to uncolonize psychotherapy?
Miss Leon: Yeah, I teach a class on this, and I can go on for some time, so you'll have to stop me if I'm talking too much. The term uncolonizing I learned from Tanya Rodriguez, who is an indigenous leader-advocate, and she has, I believe, a nonprofit called "Global Decolonization," I might be wrong on the title. The word uncolonized is meant to steer people away from the word decolonize because she feels strongly that the word decolonize has been used too much as a metaphor and has taken away from Indigenous peoples and their desires to literally decolonize, like take the land back. Uncolonize is a word that has to do with examining, for example, the institution of mental health that has for so long over history caused so much harm to Black, Indigenous, people of color, to LGBTQI+, to immigrants, that it is an institution that has come from a European-American framework. It has centered ideas like a separation of mind and body. Uncolonizing, for me, is decentering a lot of these ideas as the norm and allowing for all these other ways of being and all these ways of understanding mental health. I think that every culture across history, and across the world has a culturally sound way to manage emotional and mental health. To center the European, American way of understanding mental health and to see it as the only way of understanding it is, in my opinion just reinforcing a lot of supremacists thinking. It doesn't allow for some of these ancient traditions of understanding mental health, that have so much wisdom. Also, decentering certain notions, for example, how does a person manage sadness, from the time of like Freud and a lot of these early thinkers in Europe, about mental health. They would say you need to individualize and become your own person and go into their therapist’s office and analyze your unconscious mind, all this separate from your family. The whole notion that you can't depend on it, there's a lot of toxic masculinity to the whole idea of being an individual with your emotions and your shit belongs to you and it doesn't belong to anyone else, so you take care of yourself before you can be with anybody else. All of these come from a European American mindset. There are so many other cultures that don't believe that and don't think that that's great for mental health. There are many cultures that believe that mental health is improved with improved relationships. So, the key to good mental health is having repair and restoration in relationships and community, for example. Sometimes it's a reconnection to the environment. Sometimes managing sadness, you don't do it by yourself, you do it with a friend or in a relationship. I think there are all these ways that are culturally sound across all these different cultures but centering that European American framework and seeing it as the only way for number one understanding how psychotherapy should be, what good mental health is, what's considered normal, or abnormal.
Miss Leon: Not too long ago you could diagnose someone with homosexuality as like an illness, and that has been decentered. Now we understand that sexual orientation or romantic orientation is on a multi-dimensional spectrum, for example. Or gender, people used to see it in the binary that came from a Euro-American framework, as well and it was clinically diagnosable and done in these really horrific ways that have caused so much harm. So, I think that uncolonizing psychotherapy, for me, is examining all these different aspects that have come from a particular framework and decentering it, making it just one framework, out of many, many different frameworks and seeing that your client is multidimensional and may not benefit from just one framework, but like many different kinds of frameworks, helping your client liberate away from issues of oppression, for example. For me, that is uncolonizing psychotherapy. If I, as a therapist, I am a person of color, use a European-American framework to examine another person, another client who is a person of color, and I'm just using that framework to examine someone who has Black, Indigenous, people of color right person of color, I am then just sort of incongruent because then I'm just using that white gaze or white lens just reinforcing the harm. I think that part of my responsibility is deconstructing and uncolonizing it so that I'm not perpetuating the harms that have gone on for so long. The American Psychiatric Association just put out an apology for all these hundreds of years of harm. So, if I'm going to perpetuate this harm, what's the point? I need to uncolonize it and look at mental health differently, look at symptoms differently, look at clinical presentations differently, and allow for all these multiple ways of being in the therapy room. That was a very long answer.
Zarya: I don't know why you're penalizing yourself for that. I'm very much enjoying your long answers. I'm actually trying to figure out where my parents fall because my parents are very much, "the only family you need are me, you and your brothers and your sister," but I think it's interesting because I have a South Asian therapist right now. But this is my second therapist, my very first therapist was white and she seemed to judge, she did her best not to seem dismissive, but when I spoke about how much my family affects me. She was like, "Oh, that's a very weird connection that you have to them," and I was like, "you don't know what it's like to be a South Asian woman, the eldest daughter." We were talking about uncolonizing psychotherapy. I kind of wish I could subtly email this interview to the center at our school and say "hey, maybe this is how we should do it better." I think, Srihita, you wanted to say something.
Srihita: I think the last part of your answer also really touched on how important the therapist’s perspective is. I think sometimes we have this idea that therapists are perfectly objective, or it's all the same throughout. On the topic of bringing your own perspective and your experience to the table, has being a part of the LGBTQ+ community allowed you to connect with your patients, maybe in a different dimension?
Miss Leon: I think that whole blank slate way of being that was from Freudian times. I don't have a beard like Freud, I'm not having clients lie on a couch, and I'm not there's a blank slate. I think a lot of feminist psychology that came up around the '60s, '70s, and '80s actually challenged that a lot and saw that as very toxic masculine. In reality, the therapist is a human being, and it is inescapable to have a human and relational experience with your clients and that's the framework I also use. I have to be a human being with the people I'm with and that includes my clients. It's impossible being AI, I'm not artificial intelligence with all this objectivity. I think that the whole notion of self-disclosure in psychotherapy is often a debate. When is it time to self-disclose? For me, it's important to self-disclose when it helps my clients healing. If my client has been isolated and doesn't know anybody else who's LGBTQI+ and I may be the first person that they're coming out to, it's so important for me to say, I am as well. I have to watch how I do it, the way that I do it, and how it lands because that might scare them off or that might make them feel uncomfortable. Depending on the situation, it may be useful to self-disclose and share that with my client as a shared experience, and sometimes it may not be, and I just have to gauge what the open door is and where my client is. Self-disclosure, people argue about that a lot in psychotherapy. What's appropriate and what's not. Should therapists even be on social media? There are all these debates that have come up in recent years and I think more and more people are saying that actually, we should be more human-like. It's weird to not have a social media account. So, I have a social media account and a lot of who I am, my social justice beliefs, a lot of who I am as a human being is on social media, so my clients can actually see it. I think that becomes part of me and who I am as a therapist and as a healer. When you come to see me, this is who I am, this is the relationship that I'm going to be having with you in your healing process.
Zarya: I'm very surprised to hear that there is a debate about whether or not therapists can have social media because that seems more like a juror’s problem. You know, when they say you can't look at the news and you can look at who you're judging. So, I guess that you guys are more heavily protected than I thought. So, what would you do differently in getting to where you are now?
Miss Leon: You mean as a therapist?
Zarya: Yeah, as a therapist.
Miss Leon: I would have more confidence, maybe because I remember starting out in my early 20s and it was a very different time in psychotherapy. I think that cross-cultural psychology was just beginning to take off in the 1990s and the whole idea that different people across different cultures have different ways of being was a bizarre thing to even think about in the '90s. So, researchers were beginning to do some cross-cultural research, see if this thing is true across different cultures, how do we find universal research instruments. I think that I was insecure about coming from a multi-dimensional framework, or uncolonizing psychotherapy. I felt like I really had to conform to what traditional psychotherapy was coming from a Western, Euro American approach, but having had the experience of actually doing work with Asian and Asian American cultures really given me an understanding of how, even something like working with LGBTQI+ folks across different cultures, there's no way to just stay with one particular lens. It's not going to serve my clients and my notion of mental health and what it means has to shift and become more multi-dimensional or I'm not going to serve my clientele very well. I wish I had the confidence to believe in that early on, and not question my intuition when I was younger, in my 20s.
Srihita: Can you explain what inclusive discourse is?
Miss Leon: Oh gosh, that's like a whole other topic. So, this is my work as a DEI consultant, not so much as a therapist.
Zarya: Could you explain to us what a DEI consultant is?
Miss Leon: Okay, a DEI consultant is a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant. I do it specifically for organizations, so it would fall under organizational psychology. I consult organizations on, for example, how to help managers become more inclusive, what is diversity, how do we manage ourselves in diversity, how do we manage differences in diversity. Then in terms of equity, it's pushing for strategies that, for example, look at pay gaps between different demographic or affinity groups, looking at hiring processes, are these hiring processes fair or not fair, how are the promotional pipelines in an organization happening, are they happening fairly. For example, do men tend to be promoted more than everybody else, or is one particular ethnic group getting promoted more than anyone else. Then how can we close this inequity in an organization? That's the sort of thing that I run workshops around and I also do one-on-one consulting and help organizations do that. The DEI term, formerly in the 1990s was called multicultural education, but it's evolved to become diversity, equity, and inclusion. DEI Consultants is like their whole industry. A lot of therapists are in DEI, and I want to say that the first pioneers of multicultural education, actually, a lot of therapists were the first ones who actually talked about that because that was right around the time of cross-cultural psychology taking off. Some of the early pioneers of the DEI industry were actually therapists. That's the connection between therapy and DEI.
Zarya: Thank you so much for clarifying that. We probably should have clarified that earlier when you mentioned it, but I thought I would figure it out, I didn't.
Srihita: My mom actually works in HR, so DEI is something I've been hearing a lot more about, and something she's been getting more involved with over the past year. That's the only reason I knew about it.
Zarya: So, the original question was: What is inclusive discourse?
Miss Leon: I came up with this title of a workshop that I wanted to put together. It was specifically for leaders that are concerned with how divided things have become in society, how to manage these sorts of very polarized debates and discussions, how to manage polarized discussions in general, how to manage severe differences in the workplace or, even amongst friends and families who have different political beliefs and it just gets really polarized and really really difficult. Inclusive discourse is taking from evidence-based ideas in couples therapy and marital work, and then applying them to managing differences in terms of political debates. I think traditionally political debates come from a Greek tradition where you have an argument, there's the discourse, then you argue, argue, argue and then someone wins the argument. That's the debate, that's the Greek tradition and it's the premise of Western democracy. I'm trying to say that what's missing is the human relationship part of it. Rather than saying there's going to be a winner in this debate, it's more important to say that while we are having this discourse that we can always land on our humanity and our relationship, so even if things get really awful let's just keep landing on our humanity. Instead of making the argument about who wins, it's how can we take on this difference as a team, how can we take on this difference as a relationship because I think that relationship piece has been severed and it's no longer there. I've never seen Western society just become so polarized. Some would say that a lot of these huge civilizations fell apart because they got polarized at some point, I don't know if that's true, but I certainly see it happening now. I'm not saying in any way that we should coddle racism or coddle homophobia or anything like that. I'm just saying that from my experience doing so much LGBTQI+ advocacy work. If I didn't care about the other person as a human being or that the relationship was important, I wouldn't have stayed in the relationship long enough, persuaded and argued long enough, for my argument to get to the point where it changes the person's mind. I've been in conversations with people who were so anti-LGBTQI+ for years. Therapists who, for example, did conversion therapy for years and really believed in conversion therapy. If I didn't stay in conversation with this one particular therapist who believed in it so much, I think it was almost a decade of conversation over email over chats, they finally got it and ended their conversion therapy practice because they finally understood what the harm was. Had I not stayed in the discourse, had I not felt that human part of what we were doing, I don't think that I would have succeeded in terms of persuading the other side. I think that if we want to have discourse, we've got to stay inclusive, we can't just give up on these relationships, especially if they're friends and family if we really want social change and to see the social transformation, the relationship is still important and if we lose that humanity, I think we sort of lose all arguments. Anyway, so that is inclusive discourse.
Zarya: I am very happy to hear that the conversion therapist closed their practice. I really enjoyed this conversation actually because I feel like I've learned so much and I feel like a lot of times sitting in a therapist room I'm always wondering, "what is my therapist thinking?" I know that you're not my therapist, but it kind of gives me some insight into the process by which you guys also live your lives and help others. Thank you so much for the work that you've been doing. One of our final questions is, if you could turn back the time and talk to your undergraduate self, what would you tell them?
Miss Leon: I would say that your GPA doesn't matter all that much. It's better to have as much fun as possible and the learning actually comes from the relationships, and the experience of being with other people was more valuable to me. I barely remember anything I learned in college. I remember the relationships and I remember what I learned in terms of personal growth. I don't remember any of the content of my professors, so that's why I don't think the GPA matters so much. I think everything else was more important in the end.
Zarya: I haven't graduated yet, but I have also forgotten most of what I've learned. So, did you go into undergrad, thinking that you were going to become a therapist?
Miss Leon: Yeah, that's what I was thinking.
Zarya: Okay, and you followed through on that. That's really cool how you saw your goal, and you stuck to it all the way through. Well, that was all the questions I had. Srihita, do you have anything else to add?
Srihita: No, I think I'm good. I did learn a lot, and I feel like I'm going to be talking about some of the stuff with my therapist now because I have new terms and stuff. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Zarya: And also, before we go, could you plug your podcast and tell us a little bit about what you do?
Miss Leon: My podcast is called "Global Citizenship and Equity." The first season has passed. The second season is going to be two themes: the first team theme will be exploring anti-blackness as a global issue and how it needs to be addressed on a global scale and the second thing, I’ll be exploring is the whole notion of uncolonizing. I do an interview with someone who's advocating, for example, an indigenous group in the Philippines and what that looks like. It's exploring a whole bunch of different things, but I think the next season will be specifically exploring anti-blackness and critical race theory as well as Indigenous life across the world, uncolonizing and decolonizing.
Zarya: For those of you listening, we'll definitely drop all those links on our social media as well as our website. Thank you again for joining us, Cheryl, we really appreciate it.
Miss Leon: Thank you!
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Srihita: Hi all! Welcome to the reflection portion of the episode. In case you missed it this season we're lucky enough to have two of our interns all again so if you are joining us. So guys, what did you think about the episode?
Aaliya: Hi! This is Aaliya, something that really stood out to me during the episode was how, in the discussion we're talking about how mental health affects the body, and I think in a lot of Western culture. We don't really connect the two if we're depressed or just sad and we're focused on the emotional aspect of it. I think mental health affects your physical being so much anxiety for me I have in my shoulders and my head hurts and my stomach hurts. A lot of physical and negative things come from me being anxious.
It's really interesting though because she mentioned that insurance companies actually separate the two. You don't usually get mental health in your insurance. I also feel like whenever I'm anxious or whenever I'm in a panic mode or anything like that, I always feel this very very very tight knot in my stomach that sometimes I feel like I'm puking. So I think it's also good to notice that there's a connection in between like your body telling you that you're experiencing this or experiencing that and you should get checked. So, at least here in America, I think that is a good idea to actually just connect it to mental health and the body is not separate, it's one whole body and that you should take care of it. Your brain is just an organ so if you hurt your leg, a part of your body is hurt so why when your brain is “hurt”, why is it not seen as physical pain when it's seen as literally chemical imbalances in an organ of your body.
Srihita: Yeah, I think for me one of the scariest sorts of physical manifestations of stress and anxiety was about the second semester of my freshman year, I was going through a bit of a rough patch. I actually started having sleep paralysis, where I woke up in the middle of the night and I felt there was a weight on me, and I couldn't move. I was awake but my body was still asleep. That was more of an extreme case, but I think as you guys mentioned we tend to feel like anxiety more than a lot of other things too is incredibly psychosomatic, I realized once I actually moved to New York I realized like my body would just run hot, a lot more often than I used to. I would take cold showers and it really helped and this idea that sort of addressing the physical manifestations of whatever mental health issue is bothering us can actually help us dealing with the mental health issue itself right so it's just this idea that taking care of our body and our mind are kind of one in the same.
Zarya: Adding on to that, I think that when I first started therapy for instance, my parents were very much confused, mostly because they were, like “why are you going?”, I said “for my mental health”. They were like, “Have you considered going for walks?”. I laughed really hard. I feel like the solution is not always just taking a 10-minute walk, and sometimes for some people that does help. But for me again, I think Sofia, you mentioned a very taut tight knot in your stomach, and for me, I have upper chest pain, and it feels like there's a lightning and I'm like oh well I have, like, experience, if I honestly I don't know what the difference would be between having a heart attack and like just me being anxious because that is something that I really struggled with. I remember that when I was younger, I used to often visit the doctor because I was physically unable to breathe and I was always bent over heaving because I just couldn't catch my breath with anxiety. I think that my parents didn't really know those symptoms of anxiety which is interesting because I think that they've been through stressful situations themselves, but they were never sure how to respond to that and they were unsure. They didn't know that it was anxiety and oftentimes when we went to the doctor, something related to what you mentioned again Sofia was the insurance. My insurance wasn't the best at the time, when I first started experiencing those symptoms and so the doctors that I had access to, they were very quick and they made the visit as short as possible. So, no one ever explained to me that what I was experiencing was anxiety. There is actually a singer, Logic, a rapper who has a song called Anxiety and I think in more recent times a lot of pop artists have focused on just like stressful matters and they make it. I think almost every big pop star has a song about dealing with stress, which I think is a really important emphasis and use of social media to address those types of issues.
Aaliya: Yeah, you talked about feeling a pain in your chest and having anxiety and I feel that so hard because it feels like you're gonna die. For me, it's as if my brain is like, “Oh, just relax”, but my body would not do it and it's so scary because you're trying to fight something, or your body says you're in danger, or in a fight to live out there. So, you're sitting somewhere, and you're internally breaking apart.
Sofia: For me, when I started going to college, everything was new. I flew in from the Philippines and I knew nobody here. So, I kept overthinking at night. Thinking “Oh my god, how am I going to eat tomorrow? What about my college? My homework?”, stuff like that. So, I started losing sleep and I slept three hours max a night. We all know that losing sleep is very bad for you. Insurance companies know that when you're not getting enough sleep, that leads to your body actually shutting down. If it's as simple as that, then why can't they see that mental health and the physical body go hand in hand? We all know, not all of us are brave enough to say it, insurance companies are actually just for profit. If they can only see that mental health and the body goes hand in hand, like having an unhealthy mind can actually influence your body and that your body will also start to fail it would make a big difference. I read somewhere that a lot of people don't actually go into therapy, because they know that it's going to be out of their pocket, and nobody would want to pay for something like that. I think that's one of the good things that the pandemic has done because people started shedding more light on mental health, and people started going into therapy. I think despite everything that happened during the pandemic, it's a good thing that has come out of it.
Srihita: I think you bring up a really interesting point with the insurance because I think it sheds light on this deeper stigma that's really existed for such a long time around mental health. I think that's almost how, not that insurance companies are particularly popular amongst people, they've been able to justify that separation between mental health and physical health. We were being told “This is something that's just in your head and you just need to take a walk or talk it out.” As you said, the pandemic was such a pressure cooker in so many ways and I think for a lot of people, they realized there's things that are unavoidable and need to be dealt with. I remember my therapist even telling me she got so many new clients. There are clients that she's only done virtual therapy with that she's never even seen because there were just so many new people. That also kind of sheds light on the demand side. On the supply side there's also a shortage of therapists. There isn't like a really great infrastructure to accessing mental health because of for profit insurance companies that have pushed mental health care into the margins but as you said hopefully that's changing and getting better.
Aaliya: I actually started therapy during the pandemic just because sophomore year of college was rough. When I started it, it was literally me talking on zoom with this random stranger that I hadn't ever met before. It was kind of hard because how do you trust this person that you've never met with all your secrets? I think it’s harder to get into therapy for the first time, especially because I'm Indian. With the Indian culture behind it all, it's a kind of scary going in. It was a battle trying to even get therapy. Luckily, I had a conversation with my parents who understood it was what I needed. It was definitely harder getting into therapy during the pandemics but was also very necessary.
Zarya: I finished one and a half years of therapy about three months ago which was really nice, and I am very proud of that accomplishment, but one of the things that my therapist had gone over with me towards the end of my sessions was “Do you know when to come back to therapy?” I know that there's these life events if they happen then I will come back to therapy. So, I thought I had it all down pat. However, in recent weeks I've been feeling stressed, and I was like, “What happened to my one and a half years of therapy?” I felt frustrated with myself because I felt like I've done so much work. I'm trying my best to use it, but I don't feel like it's enough. I'm actually very proud of myself because, today, I made a consultation to get back into therapy. When I had first finished therapy, my parents were really happy. I didn't mean to tell them because I didn't want them to think I was “cured” now. I didn’t want them to think “we can change some things around and bring her back.” That's not what happened. That's not why I'm going back but I think I had my own stigma. I finished and now I'm going back but I think there is something to be said about having the strength to realize when you need it and I applaud you for pursuing that, at whatever time of need.
Aaliya: So, you talked about how therapy wasn't working and, unfortunately, that's kind of why I stopped therapy earlier than I expected to. There are also reasons that I won't get into right now, but like it was just so scary to sit there and, week after week, talk about something and feel like you're not getting better. It seemed like it was getting worse because of extra things happening, like being home or the pandemic. I think it's so brave and inspiring, Zarya, that you actually went back to therapy because I really want to, but I don't really know how right now.
Zarya: So, through our school you can make an appointment on the school health portal. They have appointments as soon as Friday. I genuinely think the hardest part is starting, and I think that goes for anything. It's such a cliche thing but genuinely just catch yourself off guard and just be like “Oh no I'm calling CAPS.” For anybody listening, CAPS is our, I'm not going to butcher the name of the acronym, health services at Stony Brook.
Srihita: I think so much of therapy is like it's finding the right fit. I got really lucky that basically the first person I saw worked out for me. Regarding what you were talking about, being frustrated at the notion of going back in, I think it's important that we remember the stigma that surrounds mental health is so deeply established that it can sometimes also become internalized. I think everyone who's ever gone to therapy or even hasn't gone to therapy has had that moment where they're like, “Well, the things that I'm dealing with aren't as bad as the things that other people are dealing with, so do I really need it?” That's such a stigmatized train of thought. Because we've grown up around it, it almost becomes a part of that little annoying voice in our heads. It's very important to show ourselves compassion in those moments and remind ourselves that we deserve to be happy and peaceful and all that stuff.
Zarya: Everything was interesting but one of the takeaways that I took home is, Cheryl discussing different types of therapy or therapy styles. So, I went to her website to try to figure out “Hmm, which one did my therapist use to analyze me?” I can't figure it out because obviously I'm not a therapist, but even just learning about those styles was very interesting because I didn't realize how that might influence someone choosing a therapist. Some people have gone to therapy for a long time, which is a really great thing, and they know how to figure out who they are compatible with. I wonder, for those people, if they're able to distinguish what kind of style works best for them, rather than a therapist figuring it out as they go along, if that makes sense.
Sofia: And I think it's important to note that therapy itself is preventative care. You don't have to feel anything, you don't have to think that you're not okay to go into therapy. I mean we all need therapy. Also, I remember you, Zarya, saying that when you first started out therapy, you had a white man as your therapist. He wasn’t able to really understand being an Asian woman and being the eldest in the family and all the pressure that comes with that.
Zarya: Yeah, it was a white woman. With therapy now, I'm trying to figure out if we have South Asian counselors, specifically. like, oh sure does. I think that Asian culture tends to get generalized into this one mass, but it's a very different culture, depending on where your parents are from or where you are from. I think a lot of people tend to just group us all together. I like when forms break down what type of “Asian” you are. I’m Pakistani, so I check of “Asian” but sometimes I wonder if I should check off “Other” and write that.
Sophia: All of this kind of makes you wish that you could get matched with a therapist how you get matched with someone on Tinder. I hope it’s that easy to find a therapist that works for you.
Aaliya: Tinder isn’t even that easy, not that I’m on Tinder, if you’re listening Mom.
Zarya: Bumble is not easy either guys, for your reference. Srihita can add onto that.
Srihita: I don't care anymore, I've accepted solitude, not that we have to get into that. Do we have any finishing thoughts?
Aaliya: We touched on psychotherapy a lot during this episode and one thing that was really hard for me was just saying it. Once you say something, you give life to it. It’s no longer just a thought. It’s so frustrating and scary to do that, but it was so necessary. That was one thing I got from therapy. Once I said it, I felt lighter. I knew it was real. I wasn’t doing it for attention. Now I feel like I can move forward and come up with a plan to be better. I think that’s why psychotherapy is so important.
Srihita: I think that's a great note to end it on. Thank you everyone for listening, and we'll be back with some new episodes for you. In the meantime, have a good time, take care of yourself, drink lots of water, sleep. So, yeah. Bye.
Sofia: Drink lemon water, I heard it's good for you. Bye!
This transcript has been edited for clarity. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future.