Home CommunityPeople Mental health professional Supriya Khanijou on how her instinct to care led her to a career in healing

Mental health professional Supriya Khanijou on how her instinct to care led her to a career in healing

by Shradha Aswani

Tuning into your emotions

By Shradha Aswani

Knowing ‘of’ something and truly knowing it has a world of difference. While mental health and the concerns around it have seeped into our everyday lives, many in the community have yet to acknowledge the psychological dimension of themselves, let alone engage with it. With this in mind, I found that talking to Supriya Khanijou, who has been a mental health practitioner for over a decade, about the diverse spectrum of mental and emotional wellness, and the stigma associated with seeking help; was educational, thought-provoking, and timely.

Supriya is a lecturer and researcher in the discipline of counselling at the University of Melbourne and the Australian College of Applied Professions, and the founder of the holistic wellness foundation, Auswellbeing. She was born and raised in Pattaya, where her family moved two generations ago. Post secondary school, she undertook the Joint International Psychology Program offered by Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and the University of Queensland in Australia, after stumbling upon psychology as a career path, due to her interest in the subject, and as a natural progression of being good with people.

“Each one of us has the same basic emotions that we experience, yet we go about pretending to be happy all the time,” she tells me as we chat about what piqued her interest in psychology. “The shame associated with all the other emotions and the farce surrounding them confused me as a child. I couldn’t understand why it was okay for people to express certain emotions and supress others. It did not make sense to me. The curiosity to decode these varied reactions is what got me interested in the field initially. I just wanted to know people and what goes on inside them.”

She opens up to Masala further about the holistic approach to mental health that she advocates, her journey from psychology to counselling and back, and the concept of ‘space’ that is a recurring theme in her practice.

How and where did you start your practice? What led you to where you are today?

After graduation, I briefly went back to Thailand to work in a psychiatric clinic, where I realised that I wanted to work one-on-one with clients in a holistic manner. This required me to study more, so I returned to Australia and finished my Masters in Counselling. I then joined a primary school as a school counsellor.
As a counsellor, when I talk to people, I try to understand how people are affected overall. For two years, while studying counselling, I was literally learning how to listen; how to connect with another human being.
A lot of the work with kids involves helping them recognise their emotions and enabling them to find a way to express how they feel. These fundamentals have also helped me educate adults about mental health since it helps us break away from labels that box emotions – like ‘anger is bad,’ or, ‘it is weak to feel sad’. Each emotion serves a purpose, and recognising these emotions helps you develop a healthy association with them.

One of the legs of your professional life is teaching. Help us know more about that experience.

Teaching young children how to manage their emotions was fulfilling for me, and so the natural extension of that was asking myself, ‘Would I be able to teach an educational setting to a wider audience?’ So, I decided to apply to a college and see if it was something I could do. Luckily, I got in and taught for two years there before
applying to the University of Melbourne, which was a far-fetched dream. But I have been here and teaching for almost a year now, and hope to stay here longer. The position I hope to stay on for is associated with research for youth mental health with Orygen, one of the largest firms that does research on youth mental health and wellbeing in Oceania.

The practice you have built has a strong foundation in holistic wellness, including a wide spread of activities and therapies such as traditional talk therapy, mindfulness, yoga training, and more. Why do you take this approach to counselling?

I have always been interested in the psychosomatic aspect of counselling. It is an established fact that psychological distress affects the physical body. Yet, in our culture, we see people reaching out for help when the symptoms have already manifested in the physical self, in the form of diabetes, blood pressure, or so many other ailments. It all ultimately starts with stress. My role as a counsellor is to interject before stress
takes a toll on your physical self. Or, if you are already struggling physically, help you heal internally so that the impact on your body can reduce over time. It is, after all, better to treat the root cause than to only manage the symptoms.

I have formally trained in Hatha Yoga and Yin Yoga, which helps me understand the physiological manifestation of stress points and movements that can help release tension. What yoga helps with
the most is allowing mental and physical ‘space’ for mindfulness practice. You suspend yourself in this space, so that you are not being dragged by the past or being pulled by the future.

This space is where one can explore oneself, be true to one’s self, and honour one’s self. I believe this is a powerful way to cultivate your sense of being. While it takes practice, once you have found your way into creating this space for yourself, it helps restore calm and helps you deal with your life in a balanced, more productive way. You can then re-engineer your thoughts and rethink your actions. People find this ‘space’ in a variety of ways, including journalling, talk therapy, movement, and meditation. It doesn’t have to look a certain way. If you aren’t someone who likes sitting meditation, try walking meditation. If you’re someone who doesn’t like writing in your journal, trying drawing or painting. If you notice that you aren’t speaking to people about your problems, try speaking to a professional. In whatever capacity, the key point is that expression is the opposite of depression.

Are there any specific issues that you’ve found reoccurring in specific diversity groups, especially the South-Asian communities that you cater to? Any psychological struggles that you see women go through particularly?

I think the whole stigma attached to the admittance of not being okay. It is disheartening to see the pretense of putting up a front when one is struggling. As mentioned, feelings that go unexpressed tend to get bottled up and explode in various unhealthy ways. When, ultimately, these same feelings come back in the form of uproar, violence, and sometimes even illness, people are quick to label others as crazy or fanatical. An attitude like this is what causes problems like domestic violence – one of the biggest problems I see in the South Asian community in Australia today. It happens because people are not taught how to communicate respectfully, or
how to express their needs and wants in a healthy manner, or even acknowledge another human being as having the same spectrum of emotions as them.

The healing in a society like this, therefore, begins with us listening to ourselves, tuning in, so that we are able to express better, and in turn, we can listen to other’s expressions with compassion. What counselling does is that it provides a safe space to individuals so that they have a non-judgmental soundboard with which they can process their thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For women, specifically, therapy can be such a helpful space. In today’s time we are asked to be SO many things! Be a mum, a career woman, a wife, a daughter, a cook, a cleaner, an Instagram-hottie, a traveller, a socialite; be healthy, be stronger, be better, be smarter; break that glass ceiling, fight for your rights, keep up to date with trends – Phew! When do you have time to be you?

Again, allowing a bit of space for yourself to breathe, to be, to reflect – through whatever means works for you – will make a world of difference.

People assume that therapy is something to take on when you are most vulnerable. Do you think that is true? Is there a self-test you could recommend to check the health of your mind?

I think we are in a place where everyone needs a therapist, hands down [laughs]. I have clients coming in to learn how to communicate better, young clients coming to learn about emotions, and some who come to talk about their relationship issues. The aim of coming to therapy is so that you can become a better version of who you are, whatever that looks like for you. You do not have to be under considerable dysfunction to reach out for support. Counselling is like a breath of fresh air. You don’t have to wait until you run out of breath to come up for fresh air!

In terms of recognising when someone may need intervention, we can look for certain signs in our loved one’s daily functioning. Usually, if you notice that their sleeping habits, eating habits, energy levels, and general interest has changed, you may want to check in with them and see how they are doing. Changes in mood (over or under expression of emotions) can also be an indication. You can also look for signs like this in yourself.

Being there for people and showing up for them even on days you are not feeling up for it can be challenging. How do you manage?

That is a loaded question [smiles]. I express my thoughts and feelings in a variety of ways. I journal a lot. And most of what I write doesn’t make sense. But it helps me vent and get everything out of my system. I express a lot through talking. I have my own therapist who I see monthly. I am lucky to have people in my life who are very compassionate and supportive; I always feel comfortable talking to my fiancé, my parents and siblings about my issues. Yoga and walking also help me release energy. I dance on happy days and lift heavy weights on angry days [laughs]. So, I certainly have several tools in place to help me navigate through my stormy days!

What really keeps me going, though, is looking at people who show up to therapy, session after session. It is powerful to see them continue to show up, fight their own negative thoughts, and carve out space to become better. It is humbling to share such a sacred space with another human being. It really just reminds me we that we are all fighting our own battles, and we all want the same things at the end of the day – peace, love, and joy.

What strengths would you say one needs to become a competent therapist?

I think all you need to become a therapist is to care. My best students, the ones who connect with people beautifully, are the ones who care. And that is enough. You don’t need sweeping grades or an extraordinary track record. You need empathy to engage with another human being in a way that empowers them.

Finally, is there a message you would like to give out to the community?

In Asian cultures, there is a tendency to prioritise others’ well-being over your own. We have been programmed to push our own needs and wants aside for the sake of others. However, this is hardly an effective way of achieving your goals. If you don’t take care of yourself, how will you have the capacity to take care of all the other things?

Taking care of oneself is not selfish, wanting to be happy is not selfish, and wanting to talk to someone so that you feel better is not selfish. It is, in fact, the opposite. You can only take care of others if you take care of yourself. Only when you learn to accept yourself will you have the space to accept others.

Find a way to express your thoughts and emotions in a healthy manner. Recognise that we all have the same basic emotions that need healthy expression every day. And it is okay not to be okay.

When you do need help beyond the strategies you have formed for yourself, you can reach out to several therapists that will suit your needs. With the rise of telehealth, you can access health and well-being support from behind a screen, at the click of a button, away from the proverbial couch. The website, www.psychologytoday.com, is a great place where you can seek help, along with so many other platforms that allow you to access counselling from the comfort of your home.

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