Chris Cheers - Notes from a Psychologist
Chris Cheers is a psychologist and educator who is passionate about creating accessible, accepting and safe spaces where people become empowered to reach their life goals. He is also dedicated to increasing community education around mental health, specialising in the arts and LGBTQI+ communities.
We discovered Chris through instagram - he is able to distill some deep and helpful insights into a succinct message that is easy for people to access. We were grateful to expand on these and ask our own questions.
So much happened in the week between recording and releasing this episode - complicated feelings about the roadmap release, riots and even an earthquake.
We’ve personally found Chris’s insights in these challenging times, and we hope that you do too.
LINKS AND RESOURCES
Offering Tree: https://www.offeringtree.com/flowartists
Chris's Website: https://www.chrischeers.com/
Chris's Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/chrischeerspsychology/
Finding a therapist or psychologist:
Find a Psychologist - https://psychology.org.au/find-a-psychologist
Psychology Today - https://www.psychologytoday.com/au
Victorian Inclusive Practitioners Therapist Directory a list of therapists and health practitioners in Victoria, Australia, who have expertise, training, and/or lived experience in various marginalised social groups. This includes LGBTQIA+, neurodiversity, sex work, kink and BDSM, non-monogamy, immigrant and/or asylum seeker, disability, specific ethnicity and/or religion, and other elements of identity or practice. https://www.vicinclusivepractitioners.com/
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Equity Health Database: https://www.meaa.org/download/the-equity-health-database/
This therapist directory from Pola Psychology: https://polapsychology.com/therapist-directory/
Books and Podcasts mentioned:
The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Master, by Dr Sarah Lewis (also featured on this podcast with Brene Brown)
Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski (also featured on Brene Brown's podcast)
Emotional Agility by Dr Susan David.
Ted Talk on Shame by Brene Brown
Chris Cheers Psychology Resources I’ve got a few resources on my website that might be helpful to check out. I’d suggest starting with Mental Health Guide for the Arts Community, my introduction to Mindfulness, an article on adjusting to the new (COVID) normal, and the Wellbeing Guide I put together for Melbourne Fringe. https://www.chrischeers.com/resources
Finding a psychologist or therapist is not the only way to do therapy. A range of online programs are now available that offer free, effective and evidence-based programs for stress, anxiety and depression. Head to Health is great place to start searching. Some programs I’d suggest checking out include MindSpot https://mindspot.org.au/ This Way Up https://thiswayup.org.au/ MyCompass https://www.mycompass.org.au/ MoodMission https://moodmission.com/and MoodGYM https://moodgym.com.au/
When you need to talk to someone right now.
Lifeline: https://www.lifeline.org.au/ or 13 11 14 (24/7)
Trained counsellors offering crisis support and suicide prevention.
Beyond Blue Coronavirus Mental Health Support: https://coronavirus.beyondblue or 1800 512 348 (24/7)
Trained counsellors available and online resources.
Rainbow Door/Switchboard Victoria: https://www.switchboard.org.au/rain or 1800 729 367. QLife: https://www.switchboard.org.au/qlife 1800 184 527
provide peer-driven support services, counselling and referral for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender diverse, intersex, queer and asexual (LGBTIQA+) people, their families, allies and communities.
The Support Act Wellbeing Helpline (1800 959 500)
a free, confidential phone counselling service, available 24/7 to anyone anywhere in Australia who works in music, the performing arts or other creative industries.
Please email us to report any transcription errorsRane Bowen: Hello, my name is Rane. This is The Flow Artists Podcast. Every episode, we speak with inspiring movers, thinkers, and teachers about how they find their flow and much, much more. I'd like to start by honoring the traditional owners of the land where this episode was recorded, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation and pay our respects to elders past, present, and emerging. We also want to send our best wishes out to you, the listener. This lockdown has been tough with a lot of uncertainty, which can really take a toll on mental health. We certainly had a lot of questions for our guest today, Chris Cheers. Chris is a psychologist and educator who's passionate about creating accessible, accepting, and safe spaces where people become empowered to reach their life goals. He's also dedicated to increasing community education around mental health. He draws on his lived experience within the arts and the LGBTIQ+ communities to provide mental health support within these communities but also to share these insights, and create resources beyond the one-on-one therapeutic model. It was actually through Chris' Instagram that we discovered his work. He's able to distill some deep and helpful insights into a succinct message that is easy for people to access. We were grateful for the chance to expand upon some of these insights and ask our own questions around lockdown, and reopening. We really enjoyed this conversation and hope that you'll also find it helpful.
All right, Chris, thank you so much for speaking with us today. It's so great to get the chance to speak with you. I'd just like to start, perhaps you'd like to share a little bit about your background and what drew you to the work that you do today.
Chris Cheers: Sure. Great to be here. My story starts I guess back at university really where I studied medical science. Going to be a doctor was my plan but that didn't quite happen. I had a bit of a mid-degree crisis as I call it, and went and studied arts for a year. I studied philosophy, sociology, and performance studies. I started discovering the arts, started acting very poorly at a university dramatic society and at the same time found psychology. I found psychology really put together what I was searching for, which is putting the arts and the sciences together. Then fast forward, many years of study, I eventually became a psychologist. I think unlike many early career psychologists, I tried to put myself to the side and be a bit of a blank canvas psychologist. As I worked more and more in the industry, I started realizing how much bringing myself into the practice was actually really useful to making certain communities feel accepted and connected to me. I'm a cisgendered male but I'm a queer man, so bringing queerness into the space and that lived experience I found really helpful for the LGBTIQ community, then bringing my arts background. I spent many years working in the arts organization. I worked for the Melbourne Fringe Festival and was on The Festival Circuit. Bringing that understanding together with my psychology understanding I found has really led me to where I am today, helping both the LGBTIQ community and the arts community in their mental health, and well-being.
Jo Stewart: I noticed on your website actually that you did quite a few different workshops focusing on mental health in the arts, which was already a pretty I guess unstable career path in terms of money before COVID, and I could only imagine now even more so. One of the things that really stood out to me with your Instagram posts was how much you were sharing from your own heart. While there is a lot of self-care advice online, often, it's like a quick little quote or a platitude and your posts are still quite brief but you really get into some deeper territory. It's a lot more focused on feeling into the emotions as they unfold. Would you like to share a little bit about your writing process and how you've gone from something that might have filled a workshop into four little slides across screens on Instagram?
Chris: Absolutely. I think when I first started thinking about the Instagram, I wanted it to be like a mini therapy session is how I came to it because I think I saw a lot of what I'd put in the world of platitudes and quotes out there on Instagram in the self-care space, which certainly some people find very helpful but sometimes, I think people share them or look at them, then move on. Maybe they don't cause an impact or cause that person to change their behavior, which in the end is what changes your life. In terms of my writing process, I thought about what a therapy session tends to do. It tends to normalize what people are going through, it tends to evoke some emotional experience, then it presents strategies. I think I go back to my I guess performance studies and arts background where I really believe in the power of aesthetic force, and the power of art to change minds because it often is the thing that's evoking emotion. That emotional shift is often the time where you'll also make the decision to change your behavior. As you look through the quote on my Instagram post, you'll see a bit of a process of normalizing what people are going through and being in the unique opportunity of being in lockdown, and being a psychologist. It's not common that we're going through the same thing as our clients but in this case, I am and so many Australians have been in lockdown for a long time. I could normalize it by putting myself into it saying, “I'm there with you,” then I could give those strategies at the end once people are ready to hear them after I've really normalized and empathized with the experience.
Jo: How much of it is about the creative process for you? Are you working through your own feelings as you're expressing them or is it more that you've come to a place of embodied understanding I guess before you feel ready to share?
Chris: No, I joke that when I'm having a bad day, I write a post to help me make it through. Some of the more popular ones have really been basically me saying, “I'm having a low day,” or “This is really hard,” coming from that place of normally, when I'm having a bad day, I might jump for the chocolate or the wine or the Netflix or just tune out but then eventually, it's almost annoying having an understanding of psychology sometimes because I know what I'm meant to do, what I need to do. I eventually do come into it but I'm human like anyone else, so I have to go through that process as well of first wanting to escape, control, and get rid of my emotions but then realizing I have to do something to process them. I have to do the often uncomfortable thing, which is actually what looking after yourself sometimes is. I process that sometimes through these posts. I normally process it in a very long post, then I edit it obviously and make it a bit more readable and useful.
Jo: That's one of the things that I've really got from your post as well. It's not self-care like, “Have a bubble bath.” It's self-care like, “Do the inner work, set boundaries, and do the hard stuff that's going to make you feel better long term.”
Chris: Absolutely. I think this time, obviously, lockdown during COVID has been extremely challenging, so many in the community, especially the arts community and the queer communities where I work. But I think it has in another way given a space sometimes for people to either they will have been pushed to do the work because they were dealing with mental health issues that in response to this that they maybe haven't dealt with before or some people have been forced to take space from their everyday grind or from other things that may be taking their time and energy. It's given this very interesting space where people may be pushed to do some work. Hopefully, my post can encourage that work. That naming it is hard but it is useful.
Jo: Some of the things that I really took from your post about a message to performing artists in crisis because one of the things that you touch on is how, when what someone does, whether it's creating art or performing or even teaching yoga fits into this as well, it's not just something that you do but it's really part of who you are, so losing the ability to do this in the way that you used to, it really hits hard and really deep. Would you like to share some thoughts on navigating this new reality?
Chris: Absolutely. In terms of identity, my studies were in educational developmental psychology originally, so I have studied a lot in terms of development of how we come to ourselves, how we develop an identity, which is a really complex idea. I first started studying that in terms of developing gender identity especially because I work a lot with the trans and gender diverse community but working with the arts community, I started realizing creative community identity is such an important part of understanding that experience as well because often, your work and yourself become quite enmeshed at some point along the line. Sometimes, in high school, you start being called like the actor or you're going to be the singer or later in your life, you're surrounded by communities that put this pressure on, “You are an artist. There's no plan B. That's who you are. There's nothing else you could possibly be,” which can be your beautiful, passionate, motivating ideas but when you can't do that work, it becomes really challenging because who are you if you're not doing this thing that you're saying is who you are? I spend a lot of time with clients and trying to write about, and understand how we can see the arts and your creative work as any really important part of you but not all of you, and how you think about the other domains of your life, how can you define your values, what's meaningful to you, and how can you enact those values through the arts but know that there's many other domains in your life where you can enact who you are and what's important to you as well. It's a controversial thing to say but to say that the arts is something you do, it's not who you are is at once a really confronting and challenging question but I think a really useful question for people who want to maintain a sense of stability, mental health, and well-being in the arts or the creative industry, which at its core is uncertain and really difficult.
Jo: Absolutely. I think there's another layer to this as well where there's this idea that to create good art, you've really got to share authentically and honestly. That's part of it but also, just from what you've said, if someone's being told that to be a good artist, you have to put your all into your art, it's like how do you have anything left to have healthy relationships or even a healthy relationship to yourself? I guess that's why there's a lot of substance abuse or just a lot of not really taking care of yourself in the arts community because it's almost like that's fed to you as, “This is how you be a good artist. You just sacrifice everything else.”
Chris: Absolutely, that myth of the tortured artist is as real today as it has been throughout history. That sense of you put your all into it and your life depends on it. You're putting so much of yourself into your work which obviously is really useful in many ways to connect to the community. For people to have their minds changed by art is from that authenticity that so many artists show but at the same time, your life can't depend on this one thing when so much of that is out of your control. I think that's another way to think about it is putting so much time and energy into the arts, and the creative industries are wonderful as long as you're really aware of which parts are in your control and which parts are not. If you can put all your time, energy, your passion, and your meaning into these and your value I guess is another way to think about it, if your work and your identity becomes enmeshed, at some point, your success as an artist becomes how you do yourself and how you do your self-worth. I think that’s the thing that I really try and challenge as an artist in creatives is knowing that you can choose how you judge your self-worth. There's no prerequisites on worthiness. That you don't have to have success in this industry in whatever way you think it has to look to have worth. You can really think about your life, your relationships, all the domains of your life, and how you are living with meaning within those domains and let that be the judgment of how you view your worth rather than torturing yourself to work really hard in something that perhaps is not in your control.
Jo: Especially since you can put your all into it and you have no say in the response that it will get or that anyone will even notice, which is a reality in the arts as well.
Chris: Absolutely. It's this hard tension between obviously, working hard is what you should do to strive to be better but I think there's so much of that success that's out of your control. Dr. Sarah Lewis wrote a book called The Rise, which is about creativity, failure, and this quest for mastery. She talks really beautifully about the difference between success and mastery in how we can have perspectives as creatives, and artists. Success are those little achievements along the way, which can feel good in the moment, we can strive for them, but when they fail, it's really important to try and view the bigger picture as you on a quest for mastery of your work or mastery of whatever you've defined as meaningful to you in your life. Those little failures or successes along the way really need to be viewed as often a part that you're not in control of that happens along the way to this really curved long-term line towards your mastery. I think that could be a useful way also to try and pivot away from that focus on goals, and success that are often outside of your control as an artist.
Jo: That just seems like such a parallel as well towards a yoga practice where the idea is it's this practice that you live through your whole life and get a deeper understanding of yourself, of the world, of your relationships, and the little wins along the way, like your perfect handstand moment or even just in meditation where you just have an amazing meditation where you just feel completely connected to the universe, then the next day, you can't focus even for a couple of breaths. It’s like you've got those little wins along the way but that's not actually the power of the practice. That's not what's going to keep you on track in coming back to it on the hard days.
Chris: That's so beautiful. Even just the reference to it as a practice, I've always found so beautiful about yoga. It's not just something you do for an hour a day or it's something that you practice. It is an ongoing journey. It's not something you should view as something you do on the way to weight loss or changing your body shape or improving your strength. That it is a practice is something that I've come to appreciate with my small amount of experience with yoga.
Jo: Oh, it sounds like you are practicing yoga in a lot of ways through your writing and through your psychology practice as well. The nice thing about it is often, even if you do come to it for a health reason or a fitness reason or just like, “I want to be able to sleep at night,” you do get to those deeper layers over time anyway as it unfolds.
Chris: Absolutely. Those little whims are really beautiful but they should be seen as a byproduct on the way. It's the same way that we view our happiness I guess within my work as a psychologist. If you're coming to a psychologist to be happy, it often leads to a lot of frustration because we can't control our emotions. For example, if there's a global pandemic and you're not happy, that makes sense. What we really try to do is try to help people identify what's meaningful in your life, how can you live by those values, and know that happiness is still going to happen. A reduction in anxiety is still going to happen whilst you are in pursuit of that but that's a byproduct to the true thing, which is living a life of meaning and taking aboard all the uncomfortable, challenging emotions that are a natural part of trying to do that.
Jo: Speaking of uncomfortable, challenging emotions, another Instagram post of yours that I really got a lot out of was your notes from a psychologist, trying to find their way through a lockdown low day. I'd love to hear the things that you find helpful in a little short term way, then in a broader big picture way.
Chris: I think in the short term of my low days, I've come to go back to the ideas of what we call emotional agility, which is that capacity to look to your emotions with curiosity, compassion, and openness rather than what we often do in life, which is to try and see our emotions as something that is meaningless, that we need to get rid of or control. On my lock down low days, which certainly happen quite a lot, I now try and first, just come from a place of checking with my body and really labeling and naming what emotional experiences I'm having in that moment, then asking myself the question of, “Why does this make sense? Why is it okay that I'm feeling like this? Why is this a normal response to this situation?” That doesn't make that emotion go away but it does give it meaning in that moment. It allows me to have it with curiosity and allow space for it as I then continue with the day. Sometimes, that identification of the emotion in my body, I'm reminded of the idea that emotions are body experiences. They're physiological experiences. It's a neurological system that we're meant to have, that signposts about our environment. The other thing I ask of that emotion and that physical experience is, “What is it asking for? What is my emotion telling me about my environment or telling me about what I need right now?” Normally, on low days, if I'm feeling stressed or tensed, it's asking me to do something that is either if I'm feeling stressed, I want to complete that stress cycle and do something physical, like vigorous or some exercise or walk, something to get that stress out of the body but other times, it's telling me to rest and telling me to just take the day off, and stay in bed. Other times, it's telling me to eat or sometimes, it’s telling me that I need to have a meditation and chill. I think there's so much in self-care that is external that we're told what self-care should look like or the expectations of what self-care should be. I always try to encourage myself and others, “You are the expert in what you need, so return to your body on those low days and listen to what the emotions are asking for, and try to do that.”
Jo: That's a really great philosophy and such a simple and powerful message.
Rane: Beautiful. To change the topic slightly, I know this is something Jo and I have talked about a bit but I guess we're in this conundrum of wanting lockdown to end but also being a bit anxious about opening up again, especially when there's probably still going to be active cases of COVID in the community, which is a bit of a different situation to previous lockdowns. Do you have any suggestions for navigating this?
Chris: It's going to be challenging. My first suggestion would be to be kind to yourself and others as we try, and do this because no one knows how to do this. I don't know how to do this but I'll give my best shot to suggest what I think is going to happen based on what I've read about it in other countries in response to this. Because you're quite right when you say that this will be different to, especially previously in Melbourne, we've had this opening up and the joy of that, and the risk of COVID has been very low in the community during those times, so I was working mostly with clients back then about their social anxiety, going back into spaces that they haven't been allowed to be in for so long. We know that anxiety tends to breed and tends to grow through avoidance. When we've been forced to avoid situations for a long time, it makes sense that some of those previously fine environments will now be anxiety provoking. On top of that social anxiety that will come with this will be that normal fear of COVID because it now is in the community. Everyone is going to have very different experiences at this time, so try to create openness and understanding. Don't assume anything about anyone's experience. Simple things, like the idea of vaccines. We really need to understand that there are different reasons for anything from medical reasons to others that mean that people can't be vaccinated even if they would want to. That assumption that everyone should be vaxxed is something that we need to not just assume that we understand everyone's experience. How I would talk about navigating the space is understanding that for some people, this is going to be a really positive experience. They're going to love being back out there again. Maybe they're going to relish and really want this, as in the UK, they call it a freedom day. I think we all want that. We all want this to end but what we've learned through how people in the US experienced their opening up was there wasn't a moment where this ended. It will be uncertain for much longer now. The sooner we can start to grapple with that, how we sit with that uncertainty, how we sit with those fears, how we support each other in those fears rather than just look forward to this day when it will all be over will be the really important process that we all need to do at some point. I guess I would invite people to really try and tune out of that really normal urge for it to just be over, and to understand that life will be different now. Life will be uncertain now. Everyone's experience of this is different. This is going to be a really challenging time rather than just a really happy opening up time.
Jo: Just to return to what you were saying about the vaccines. From the experiences that I've seen in different countries, I know in say, Europe, there are a lot of places that require a vaccine passport. That causes a whole lot of different emotions to come up for me because I know we're both vaccinated. I'm still waiting for my second dose. I know there are people in my community who are at a really high risk, so I want to do everything that I can to keep them safe. Like in our yoga studio community, there are other people in the yoga community who are very anti-vaccine. There are people, like you mentioned, who have a medical reason where it's not going to be a possibility. As a business owner, I'm going to be this gatekeeper if the government does have a mandate that you'll have to be vaccinated to enter a certain space. They never mention the people who have a medical reason, why that's not a possibility. I don't really feel like I'm emotionally equipped to be like not a police presence but a door keeper to the studio when all I want to do is welcome people in and keep people safe. It's one of the things that's giving me anxiety, thinking about reopening.
Chris: Absolutely. That's a really normal response to this uncertain space. Your version of it will be sitting with that gatekeeper position and having to make decisions to let people in or not. Other people's experience will be different versions of that because we're having to navigate this different world where sometimes, we forget that this is an invisible virus that's a global pandemic. It's the stuff we saw in movies that is now here. I think in Australia, we haven't really experienced what a lot of other countries have experienced in their waves of really feeling like it is in the community at large and feeling like the risk to us is real. I think we've spent a lot of time maybe feeling about the risks of lockdowns and the risks of restrictions. Some communities certainly have been dealing with the risk of COVID over the last year but as a general population, I think that's the phase we're about to go into. I guess the only advice would be to, I go back to what's my role here, my role as a psychologist. What I can say is it's about the different hats you might put on. You might be putting on the hat of a compassionate, kind friend to some people but then you'll be putting on the hat of a business owner where it's your job to perhaps keep people safe. Only you can make that decision based on all whatever information you can at the time but there is no right or wrong anymore. There's no black or white decision about this because it is uncertain. I think the only thing you can do is consult with a community, to listen, to make a decision, to communicate that clearly, then evaluate as it goes because there's no rubric here. We don't know what we're doing. In those times, the only thing we can do is make the best decision we can at the time and evaluate how it's going, and be kind to ourselves as we try and do this really difficult thing to navigate these previously impossible to even consider spaces.
Jo: Another thing I have been trying to do, this was more about masks because that's what we've dealt with up until here, vaccines haven't really been a thing, is do as much of my communication as I can up front before the person arrives, so in all of our websites, all of our emails, all of their confirmation, just be super clear on what our policies are with masks, which is really just what the government is saying. Just passing that on and trying to make it so that people are pre-informed about what expectations are, and the guidelines that we're setting at our studio to help keep our community safe.
Chris: Absolutely, boundaries and clear communication will be so important as we navigate these spaces now because there won't be a common understanding of any of this. It will be up to everyone to communicate clearly their boundaries and to know that their boundaries are theirs. They can communicate when those boundaries are crossed but I think there's another part of this that is I guess navigating the difference between individual risk and also the community risk. I think that's also where you're going to see some more emotionally charged and challenging conversations because naturally, in a time of fear and stress, our threat response turns on in our body, which I like to call it the dumbest system of your nervous system because once you perceive a threat, it's on, then your body is ready to fight, fight, or flee. It doesn't really listen to logic. The part of your brain that deals well with logic and rational thinking is gone. The cortisol has destroyed it in those moments. When you're in that threat and fear response, you just go into a place of protection rather than connection. Unfortunately, that place of protection is going to focus on your individual needs and your individual risk. That's going to be the challenging space is how we all learn to regulate our nervous systems to stay calm and rational because this is going to have to be a time when we all come out from perhaps being focused on our individual risk, and being forced into lockdowns in our own lives. How can we regulate our nervous systems to rationally realize that this is a time where we're going to have to come together, sometimes, that will mean you, doing something for the community, not just in navigating your own risk. I think that difficult, challenging, uncomfortable space is what we're about to see played out in many different arenas over the next year.
Jo: I've definitely been having the experience at the moment where if someone is saying something that I don't like online and I don't feel like I want to confront them about it because I don't have the mental energy for that, I'm not a very confrontational person anyway. It's pretty easy to unfollow someone on Facebook, then as spaces open up, it's going to be a much more face to face experience. I guess navigating how much energy you want to put into expressing your point of view when it's different from someone else's and when there's a community care, and community safety element to it all versus “Oh, am I just feeling agitated and fidgety today because I'm stressed?” it's so multi-layered and complicated.
Chris: That's why I think the individual responsibility is to do the work to be able to know and notice when your body is in that fight or flight, freeze response, and do what you can through breathing, exercise, and meditations. To learn to ground and regulate your own system so that you can make the choices that you think rationally are the right ones to make. I think when I sit in my rational space, my grounded space, I also think very much about all the different communities right now that are at high risk of COVID and have lower vaccination rates, not due to their fault of their own but due to how the vaccine has been delivered. I think the COVID has really seen an increase in the gaps and has really exacerbated the gaps we have both in our mental health care system but also just generally in society and inequalities. We know, for example, Aboriginal communities are vaccinated less, again not due to their fault of their own but due to how this has been distributed and throughout Australia, we're seeing that divide in cities between lower socioeconomic areas and high socioeconomic areas in terms of vaccine. I think when I see these targets towards 70% and 80%, we're not capturing what's underneath that which may be that some communities are at high risk. They're the communities that you wear your mask, you, keeping to restrictions, and you, getting vaccinated. They're the ones that those actions are going to help as well because this is about us coming together and at a time when we're all feeling very divided, it's going to be a process of doing our own individual work I think to be able to then come together as a community.
Jo: Hi, it's Jo here. If the last couple of years have shown, being adaptable and creating autonomy within your yoga business has never been more important. However, creating a website from scratch can be a very expensive and daunting proposition, especially when you combine it with creating a booking system, mailing list, and managing online payments and sending out Zoom reminders for all your online classes. I did a lot of research for our mentoring clients to find the best value and easiest to use package, which also supports tiered pricing, donation-based classes, and was accessible and understandable for new teachers who aren't super comfortable with technology. We recommend OfferingTree, and we're now OfferingTree Ambassadors. Use our link offeringtree.com/flowartists to get one month free or 15% off an annual plan. The essentials plan is only US$22 per month at the time of recording this, and includes everything that you need as a new teacher building your yoga business. We'll pop the link in the show notes for you.
Jo: I'd really love to ask you now about lessons from the LGBTQI+ community because they, as a community, have dealt with the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, and also of healthcare as a political issue and activism and education being a major focus for a lot of people within that community. Have you noticed a different response from within the queer community to COVID? Is there wisdom from within this community that you'd like to see reach a broader audience?
Chris: I think so. We as queers often say, we stand on the shoulders of giants when it comes to the work and the activism, especially in the AIDS and HIV space. I think something that was learned through that pandemic that unfortunately I don't think has been learned by governments but was certainly seen in our communities through history that often, the view of a government and those structures is to go towards policing and go towards turning a public health crisis into a political and a policing situation. That generally goes down to this belief that if you can, you can guilt and shame people into changing their behavior, which is something we know through psychological research to just be untrue. If you make someone feel shame for something that they're doing, the feeling of shame is not motivating to make a change, it's not motivating to do something for the community, it tends to put people into a place of attack and defense and doing things for themselves as an individual. The alternative to that, that we eventually saw in some jurisdictions across the world in response to the AIDS crisis, was seeing this as a public health crisis and coming from a place of empathy, compassion, understanding and working with the community, too. That's the place you make a change. That's the place you get a community on board so that they, as a community, can take the right action to try and change a public health crisis. We've seen that time and time again in queer communities where the community coming together to look after each other and also to take the right action. We've obviously seen HIV, AIDS, the rates just drop incredibly in Australia due to the work not only of activists of the past but also to us all, a lot of queer men especially are taking PrEP every day or when they need to which is basically a drug you take to prevent you getting HIV and all that sacrifice. People living in HIV and AIDS have made the sacrifice they've made in the past to take drugs that are experimental, that had devastating consequences for some people but through that, we learned which drugs work. Now, you're at a beautiful place where about 95% of people living with AIDS or HIV take medication that gets their viral load to something we call undetectable which means they can't place, they can't give HIV to anyone else. Those are just two examples of the community coming together and making the sacrifice because they knew it was for something greater. I think that's the energy we could learn from, try and approach COVID with now how does a government actually work with the community to come together so that we all feel we're working towards a common goal and a common good. Because right now, it's feeling very divided and that is not a time where people tend to want to make self-sacrifice for the sake of a community.
Jo: Yeah. I'm seeing examples in Sydney where the government hasn't even made an effort to translate necessary information into the languages that the community understands. Then a few community leaders are stepping up and taking on the responsibility of translating that information, making announcements, and explaining things so that their community can feel safe with vaccinations or even just understanding the lockdown rules.
Chris: Yeah. That working with community is something we see time and time again that there's this assumption sometimes, especially from White Australians that the structures that we have are equal and equally accessible to people like hospitals and all their existing services. Let's say, just put the vaccines in those existing spaces, but sometimes these spaces are anything from harmful to anxiety provoking to trauma triggering for people from other minority communities because of their experiences in those spaces. When you see, I've joined you, I've heard about community leaders within both Melbourne and in Sydney who are coming forward to set up the vaccine hotspots in their community, right there in the community, talking in the community, working with the community, and that's when you see the vaccine rates change. It doesn't change just from telling people to come into a hospital, putting it in English language on television and Facebook, just telling them to come and do it, trying to guilt them in this idea of, "We're in this together, let's do this." That old idea goes through that, "We're all in the same storm right now but we're in different boats." I think we really need to acknowledge, look around and think about what boat we're in and what boat other people are in if we're going to try and get through this together.
Jo: I guess that leads me to a mental health question. I saw on your own website that you're fully booked right now for one-on-one sessions and not even room on your waiting list. For people who are looking for support with their mental health and struggling to find a psychologist, is there an easy referral network? I've seen people sharing on Facebook about it like, “Does anyone know somewhere nearby with free appointments?” Is there a way that people can access this support that doesn't involve a lot of phone calls to dead ends?
Chris: The simple answer is no. It's not easy in Australia to access a psychologist because our mental health system, long before COVID, was inequitable, challenging and not adequate but that's the bad news. The good news I would say is that recognizing that in Australia we're a bit stuck in this system that if you are having mental health issues or well-being issues that you should see a GP and you should see a psychologist, that's the only avenue for help. It's wonderful that that avenue has become destigmatized and a lot more people are accessing it. The issue though is obviously, it's quite expensive for many people to see the GP and then a lot of psychologists, even if you get a mental health care plan from your GP, the psychologist will charge a gap. Some people can't afford that let alone finding a psychologist that even has space available right now. I guess the strategies I would give is opening up and thinking about what help might be useful to you right now while you're waiting for a psychologist or maybe alternatively to a psychologist. For example, Psychology Today is a website that lists a lot of therapists, counselors, social workers, and other mental health professionals that may be able to offer you support right now, and also list psychologists that you may be able to find support right now but it's great to I think try a varied approach to this and see if it works for you. If you go and see a counselor, or therapist, or do an online therapy, or an online counseling, it might not work for you and you might end up needing to see a psychologist anyway but if you're on a waiting list already, what you're doing in that time while you're waiting for one is a helpful focus to have. The other point I'd make is keeping in mind that there's a lot of online therapy now that is free. Online CBT programs, online therapists, some where you're actually talking to a therapist, some that are just online mental health programs that are incredibly helpful as well and have been shown through evidence to be just as helpful as seeing a psychologist when it comes to things like stress, depression, and anxiety because in the end, the changes you need to make to your life are behavioral changes that you are in charge of that. You will make and that's what proves your mental health care. Seeing a psychologist for one hour or fortnight does not make the change. That helps you understand and supports you to make your own change in your life. Trying to think about family supports, online supports, counselors, therapists, the huge amount of community support networks, there are lots of different support out there that you can perhaps seek rather than just waiting for this psychologist that may, at the moment, unfortunately not be accessible or have quite a long waiting list. I would just add if you're thinking about other searches, the Australian Psychological Society has a Find My Psychologist Area where you can try and search for a psychologist as well, both those. There's also on my website, I've got a space that helps you try and find a psychologist. It links to quite a few other clinics and quite a few other searches. There's a Victorian Inclusive Practitioners Network that lists a whole lot of different practitioners who work more with the queer, the trans and the gen diverse communities. There's a database of that and there's also some other databases there on psychologists who work more with people of color and other minority groups. There are networks and databases out there right now but the reality is unfortunately, a lot of psychologists are full up and it's really challenging right now.
Jo: Yeah. I’ll definitely link to the resources that you just listed. Another one that I just remembered while you were talking which I have seen online is actually a service that you can text to rather than phone up. The idea being that if you're in the middle of a crisis, talking to a stranger might be harder than sending a text message.
Chris: Absolutely, there's so many alternatives online, chats, and spaces right now that are really out there that aren't really well publicized and aren't really well known about. The government website, Head to Health has listed a whole lot of these online services that are all evidence-based and really great services that you can search for. As you mentioned, there's different chat services. The online counseling, and therapy space is a really huge growing space. I think one of the advantages of COVID for mental health is it has pushed us all to telehealth as psychologists. We're poor, running, and screaming in some ways but obviously, it was a way for us to continue to support the community. We were happy to take it up and it's forced a lot of us into these online spaces that maybe previously haven't been doing. I think questioning this medical model we have of mental health care in Australia, of seeing a GP and seeing a psychologist as the only way, I think is something worth challenging at times like this. Thinking about what else is on that smorgasbord of support that you can reach out for right now but I'd add a certain thing that we also need to improve and change that broken mental health care model which comes from having more psychologists and also making psychology free for all Australians.
Rane: Yeah. Those are some good points. I'm just curious when it comes to speaking with a psychologist or a counselor, do you think it's important to share, say, a common perspective or worldview with the psychologist or do you think the training the psychologist has would help cover that?
Chris: It's interesting, when I first started out, I think based on my education and my early career, I did have that idea that we as psychologists, we practice evidence-based care. It doesn't matter who we are and who our lived experience is. We are following our evidence-based model. That's the care we're providing and that will be helpful. But as I've worked in this industry for longer and work with a lot more clients in times of crisis and need, there is a really important part of therapy that is about the therapeutic alliance or the relationship between the client and the psychologist. If we go back to Carl Rogers who's the grandfather of counseling would say that relationship is based on empathy, showing understanding and it's also based on congruence which is the ability for the psychologist to be themselves, to have authenticity, to say what's on their mind, and on the idea of unconditional positive regard. I think the more that I've brought my lived experience into the space, the more people can feel accepted, trusting, and understood within that therapeutic relationship which I think much more now as the foundation on which then you use your evidence-based practice. But I think it is a necessary and important foundation and first step that you need to feel with a psychologist. I always invite my friends if they're seeing a psychologist they don't like is, "Go back twice, just have two sessions." If you're not feeling it in the second session, if you're feeling up to it, maybe even talk about that you're not feeling connected or what you're feeling in that space and your psychologist's response to that question will be the thing that will actually really decide I think whether this is the person for you or not. But try and have those two sessions I think can be a really good space to see if you're feeling connected but if you're not after that time, then do try to seek a psychologist that you know something about their lived experience that connects with you. Because for a lot of people, that is a really helpful part of the helping process.
Jo: I've seen a couple of response sharings from women of color online where they're talking about seeing a white psychologist and how they've ended up reassuring their white psychologist who are so disturbed about the things that have happened to them, that they're the ones in tears during the session and it's just like, "Oh, my gosh." You're showing up to the person and you're consoling them about the stuff that happened to you seems like if someone's from a really different lived experience, it's like there would be so much more talking, explanation, and getting to know what all of that means just to get to the point where you can actually start on working with the actual issues.
Chris: Absolutely. That can be really harmful for some communities who go into these spaces and then based on the medical practitioner or psychologist's response, it can be quite traumatizing and challenging. A clinic called Polar Psychology is, you can search online, is doing incredible work in this space, to try and find practitioners, and clinics that are either psychologists who are people of color or have a great understanding and connection with that community because you want to make sure those spaces are safe. Sometimes you need to have someone who has your lived experience to make you feel safe in those spaces. I think I experience it, as I said, I'm a queer man and that experience and lived experience is so for my queer and transgender clients, they talk about with other psychologists who don't have that experience, having to explain everything all the time. Feeling a judgment from psychologists sometimes, whether the psychologist is doing it purposefully or not, it doesn't really matter because we as psychologists don't get to leave ourselves at the door when we walk in and sit in that room, and be a psychologist. Unfortunately, a lot of psychologists in Australia have that lived experience and only that lived experience because it's quite a privileged high socio-economic thing to be able to afford to study. It's talking about six years of study and I lecture in psychology. I've done this for the last 10 years. I know that the graduates coming through, all have very similar lived experience and all look very similar. We need to change the way that we teach psychology, to allow us to educate psychologists from different lived experiences and different cultures to begin with. But secondly, we, as psychologists need to understand that the practice itself of psychology is theoretically and historically white and Western and that individualistic understanding of mental health that sees your mental illness as lying within you as an individual, puts responsible on you to fix your diagnosis, is so different to other understandings of mental health that would focus on community and focus on looking at what the society and what's around you that might be contributing to your mental health issues or well-being and how we can work with the community in those structures to improve mental health as well. I think there's a huge question and issue in there that I think is so important for us to think about. It's not just about getting more psychologists in Australia, it's about really thinking about how we educate them and what kind of psychologist. Hopefully, there are psychologists out there that are as diverse as the population that we're trying to help.
Jo: I guess there's even some perceptions within different cultures as well that you have to be strong within yourself and not get help outside of yourself. Hopefully, getting more and more psychologists and mental health professionals from diverse backgrounds will normalize that experience of getting help and not having to shoulder at all on your own because it's a sign of weakness or it's a sign of, I'm not sure, I'm not speaking from my own lived experience here more just what I've seen in movies and on TV about perceptions about seeking help.
Chris: Yeah. I see it. I see that, I guess men in Australia, obviously there's other than stepping outside, seeking help, and talking about your emotions. Again, having more psychologists that can speak to that experience and connect more with young men especially, I think obviously have a really high risk of suicide and mental health difficulties but often other people who are least likely to seek help. I think getting more psychologists in that space but also other cultures where it is wrong to speak outside of your family about the issues of your family in many cultures. We have a very individualistic idea of that in white Western ideologies of mental health that it's like you should sit down and tell me all your secrets, about your family, about your past, about everyone. Tell me, a stranger or everything about your life because I'm a psychologist. There's a very medical way to see mental health care. Whereas I think we need to have more diversity in mental health practitioners, psychologists so they can understand how other cultures operate, what they're working with, how do you work, and support someone who the idea of stepping outside of your family and telling the secrets of the family is something that should never be done because an individual idea of mental health care does not work for that culture. We need to listen and think about other ways to support mental health and well-being rather than just this one vanilla cookie-cutter approach that often we see in psychologists in Australia.
Rane: I think in New Zealand, I read something that less than 5% of psychologists are Maori, Maori makeup a bit over 10% of the population. There's obviously a bit of a disconnect there.
Chris: I don't have the stats in front of me but I would say it's probably even worse in Australia for Aboriginal practitioners. I think the last that I saw there was only around 200 Aboriginal psychologists in Australia. Some people are trying to do great work in this space to try, train, and change that but it's certainly something that is not just Australia, obviously, a lot of countries and issues in reconciliation with First Nation populations and meaning that those inequalities are certainly shown through the mental health care system as well as so many other structures and systems in society.
Rane: I'd just like to briefly go back to that point you raised earlier about shame not being an effective motivator. I know even though I'm vaccinated, I believe everyone should be vaccinated, I do feel that people who are unvaccinated or are vaccine hesitant, we do seem to throw a lot of shame their way. This might not be an easy question to answer but how do you think we could navigate that?
Chris: It's helpful at this time, sometimes I think about the work of Brené Brown in the shame space. She defines very clearly between shame and guilt. Guilt is something that's focused on a behavior; so you've done something bad or the behavior was bad and you feel bad about that. Shame is that belief that I am bad. We know that guilt can be a good motivator for a change in behavior. If you do focus on the behavior of why not getting vaccinated, how that impacts the community, and the education around that, navigating the risks around that, and not assuming that people have the understanding or have had access to the education sometimes with this. If you can focus it on that specific behavior, that's what I would, I guess, welcome you to try and suggest to do first, moving on to comments that are about the person because that is where you'll get to shame. Where you start saying they're an idiot or whatever, moron, or things that adjectives or directed to the person because that is when you're going to lead to shame which is not motivating to that person making a change. It's also going to lead to disconnection rather than connection. It is a challenging space but it's one that I would say is about sharing and focusing on the actual thing you're talking about, vaccines. Trying to encourage a sense of connection and community in why we're coming together to do this and why the importance of doing that beyond just the individual risk at the same time is trying to prevent words that are going to try and promote shame in someone and words that are going to direct more towards the individual rather than the behavior.
Jo: Yeah. That's really great, it's just a great insight to have in mind. I guess as well like the tricky thing in Australia is we're still at the level where there aren't actually enough vaccines to go around anyway. A friend of mine just shared her experiences and she's living in Coffs Harbour. She's got a new baby. She's breastfeeding. That means that she's pretty limited in the choices that she can have and because she's not working outside of the house, she's not actually eligible to get the vaccine that she needs at the moment. Coffs Harbour's going to be on this pilot program where the vaccine passports from Sydney, they're beginning getting an influx from a city where all of their vaccines went to in their crisis. Now, she doesn't feel protected in her own town and the people who are vaccinated are getting all these extra freedoms and through no fault of her own, she's in this situation where she's been a bit shamed for not getting vaccinated, no option to get the vaccine, and put in danger from people who are coming from the place that got their vaccines. It's really like, "Oh, my God."
Chris: Absolutely. That's what I mean about we're all in the same storm but in different boats. We don't sometimes take a step back and consider that everyone's experience of this pandemic and of being able to access a vaccine is different. There are many different reasons for that, but one of those is that sometimes people have wanted to access it but haven't been able to. We have to allow space and compassion for that because that is some people's lived experience of this time. I'm seeing it in Melbourne now. Today is our first day where we can have picnics and if you're both double vaxxed, I think you can have five people at a picnic. But I'm noticing with my friends, it's now the first time where we're actually getting an understanding of who is double vaxxed and who isn't, we've never really had the clear conversation before like that and there's never been a clear reason I guess to know who's double vaxxed or not. The people who are only single vaxxed in my group, it's not because they were hesitant or anything, I'm double vaxxed but as a psychologist I got access a lot earlier than everyone else, whereas other people are having to wait the gap between this. For AstraZeneca, waiting at quite a large gap, people who got Pfizer for many very different reasons have a shorter gap. Everyone's experience of this is different, let alone if you live in a minority community or English as a second language and you haven't had access to an understanding of these vaccines. I often try, step back, and think about what would someone's experience of this pandemic be like who didn't have the privilege I've had of my education? Because I found it so hard to navigate this like which vaccine is better, which goes from “take this one, don't take this one. You're in phase one, phase b lock down, stage four, phase two.” It's so complex, the risks that we're trying to navigate now. Navigating risks is difficult and it's a privilege often to have had access to an education to understand the way that this information is distributed which often is very complex, politically charged, and not really easily accessible to people outside of those who speak English. I think we have to stand back before we judge and think really about “I try to have some kindness and compassion for people's different experience of this time.” Listen and understand someone's experience and understand their reasons for not being vaxxed before you, I guess, make assumptions and therefore come from a place and maybe defense or attack.
Rane: Absolutely. I guess we've got one more question which we ask all our guests and it might not be an easy one to answer but I guess, if you could try to distill everything that you've learned, everything that you teach, or share down to one core essence, what do you think that one thing would be?
Chris: I would say I've learnt that as a people, to live our lives, we should learn to feel our feels, control the controllables, and walk out why. Walk what is meaningful and important to us. Learn to make space for the really uncomfortable and difficult emotions that will naturally come up as we try to do something that matters.
Jo: Oh, what a great summary. That's beautiful. Thank you so much.
Chris: No worries. Yeah, luckily I've been writing Instagram posts. I've been getting better at distilling things down to short phrases.
Rane: I really hope you enjoyed our conversation with Chris. I'm grateful that Jo and I got the opportunity to speak with him and really get into some subjects that have been on both of our minds a lot lately. We would really love to hear your feedback, so please definitely reach out to us. We're on Facebook as The Flow Artists Podcast and you can also find us on Instagram. I'm @ranelovesyoga and Jo is @gardenofyoga. Send us a message. For our next episode, we're speaking with Dr. Kathryn Schmitz about her upcoming book Moving Through Cancer. It's an evidence-based resource about the benefits of exercise when used alongside regular cancer treatment. As a cancer survivor myself, this is a subject I'm very passionate about so I can't wait for you to hear our conversation. Our theme song is Baby Robots by Ghostsoul and is used with permission. Check it out at ghostsoul.bandcamp.com. Thank you so much for listening. Jo and I really appreciate you spending your precious time with us. Arohanui. Big, big love.