What It's Like Working in Mental Health and Wellness
Written by Alexandra Jagiello
In partnership with The Women Tribe, we are publishing a series of interviews exploring the unscripted lives of women working in various industries in New York City.
Over the next few weeks, Alexandra Jagiello, founder of The Women Tribe, will offer a deeper look into what it’s like to work in mental health and wellness, comedy, podcasting, and so much more. Each woman shares her journey, opens up about ways that she has overcome adversity, shares her personal mantras and discusses how she is able to find happiness.
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Amrantha Kalra is a 27 year old mental health and wellness therapist who migrated to the United States in 2015 from Bombay, India. She enjoys running and yoga, and the beach is one of her favorite places; the water resets her and acts as her personal therapy (I can relate). Thank you Amrantha for dedicating time to sit down and speak with me and sharing your experience with The Women Tribe + The Uncommon Muse. Ladies and gents, introducing Amrantha Kalra!
Can you tell me about your first experience working in the mental health and wellness field?
My first experience was a two week, almost just an “observation period” that I did in India at the Naval Hospital. At the hospital I would sit and observe as clients come in, talk to the clinical psychologist there and then leave. Of course, we needed the clients’ consent for me to be observing and learning. That was my first insight ever into seeing it first hand, and I think that’s what energized me so much. I found it to be like a roller coaster ride. Every time was so different from the next. The clients were all naval sailors. Similar training, similar age group. Their experiences were so different.
For example, there was this young woman that came in that was the wife of a sailor. And if you looked at her (you wouldn’t suspect) the story she told would blow my mind. A part of it is that she got so angry that she bit a piece of her husband’s flesh out. To hear that come out of this woman’s mouth - was just like wow. But everyone comes with a story, and what’s fascinating to me; everyone has such a different story. Each of it is so much and so powerful by itself. But after those two weeks I knew I really want to do this.
My first job (not as a therapist) was working as a special needs educator in Bombay, India. My class was predominately children from ages 8-13. There was a lot of teaching and counseling that I loved. My first job working in mental health was a therapist job in the Bronx. Again, it was a school setting but I was purely a therapist. I worked with a couple of different youths and that was amazing to see how their challenges were so different from what I have seen, and how they have grown up. I would work with them on mental health issues, therapeutic support and things like that. And overall social stuff.
Can you talk about how that experience differed from other experiences working in the mental health and wellness field?
Mental health is not like a standalone thing right? If you come from a very poor family, or if you’ve lived near violence or if you have been around gangs- all of that impacts your mental health over time. So it’s not just a diagnosis by itself. That was a big eye opener for me there because I haven’t lived that life and seen it (what they have seen).
There were some girls in the group that would say ‘I’m going to fuck her up, I am going to beat this one up’ and my approach to that was, ‘Why does it have to be violent? Why can’t you talk about it?’ That’s not the way they think. And it would surprise me but the point is, that’s all they have seen, that’s all they have been taught. And if you don’t fight back, someone will fight you.
That was a whole new perspective shift because that is their life and to tell them not to do that is not fair, like disarming someone. The whole social impact about where you grow up, where your family is, what you learned, the government, equality, inequality, impacts mental health also.
Editor’s note: Amrantha is currently employed in New York City at a “super bougie private practice like you would imagine in the movies” and most of her current clients are in their 20’s and 30’s.
I have a lot of men that come to me, and I have very few white women clients. I have a lot of Asian women and like two white women. Which is very funny because it’s in Soho and you’d expect there to be more white women. There are other therapists in the practice that see more white women clients. But, there’s something about a client and a therapist matching. Right? It’s not only what you (the client) bring to the room. Me, I’m an Indian, I am a female, all that stuff I bring into the room as well- it’s that match.
What is it like working for a suicide prevention hotline?
My other job is working for a suicide prevention hotline. The call can be anything frankly. It could be a suicide call, but often times the person is not actively suicidal—they just don’t know who to talk to. Sometimes we have calls where people are saying, ‘my pet is doing this’ or ‘ I want tickets to the Justin Bieber concert’ so you get all different types of calls.
I got this mom last week in Poland, she said her son was texting her from America that he is planning to kill himself and she didn’t know what to do or how to contact the police from Europe. It became this triangle of trying to keep him on the line through the mother, me assessing the mom for the “suicidality” of the son, while also making sure that the mom is ok, while ALSO making sure that the mom keeps the son on the phone while I call 911 and they got there. So, anyone can call. It’s fun, I love it. I know a lot of people are like, ‘oh that’s heavy’ and I get that and I understand it. But that’s not how I experience it.
Are you always ready for that call?
It’s my job, so yeah. When you are at your job, you’re always ready to speak to a customer at anytime, so it’s kind of like that. If I had a really heavy call and then I get another one, you kind of have to brace yourself a little bit. But you never know when you say hello.
Do you have a mantra that you tell yourself on a daily basis?
I think if I did that would be great and more helpful. There are times when I set an intention and have started the day by saying that I am going to make every call amazing. And I feel that really helps me personally get into the calls, but other than that I think, nah. It would be like an underlying perspective that I have. Which is, “I’m so glad this person has called”. Just picked up the phone and reached out that to me is the battle won. And after that it is going to be good.
How has social media affected mental health in our society from your perspective?
I am not a fan of social media personally. The biggest way I think it has affected us is the way it has affected our sense of self. It is so fragile. Anyone can be a dick and anyone can say anything without seeing the emotional impact it has on someone else. It has kind of made us “easy assholes.”
How as our ability to be “easy assholes” online translated to behavior on the streets?
I’ve thought about this a lot during the elections. I feel like there’s this whole sense that if I ‘like’ a comment or if I write something, then I have done something. It’s like I have taken action, but you really have not. Voicing your opinion is great but that isn’t enough. I don’t think that should satisfy you that much. It gives you that placebo feeling and then no real change is taken. So in the streets or normally people are just not going to do anything, going to engage, not going to smile at someone because the practice is just to like something.
What is an identity forming phase and why is it important?
There is an adolescent phase when your identity is forming your “sense of self” concept, confidence, etc. that occurs during the age of 12-15. Those are the crucial years. And in that stage if you can’t form a solid identity you’re basically fucked because it spills over into adulthood. Not to say that nothing can be done about it, but it is so much more difficult now because all these “likes” are affecting your identity being formed at that time. According to German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, “Failure to successfully complete a stage can result in a reduced ability to complete further stages and therefore a more unhealthy personality and sense of self. These stages, however, can be resolved successfully at a later time.”
I didn’t have to deal with that so I think I turned out very secure and happy. Then, of course life hits you, but you are stronger to deal with it. If you talk to teenagers now, they will talk to you about their social media profiles, not themselves.
How do you define mental health in your own words?
We see mental health as this medical model. We see it as this thing where we are only paying attention to it when something goes wrong. We see it as something to fix, as a problem. But what we forget is that you’re taking in information, insults, happiness; things are happening to you everyday. I would refer to it as “wellness.” Wellness is thought of as yoga and meditation but your mental health doesn’t have to be healed to be worked on. We can just do things to exercise our minds and bring it to a better place.
How have federal level budget cuts to healthcare affected your day to day work life?
There have been budget cuts in the whole mental health field already. It has not directly affected me but there is a way in which the entire direction of mental health has become a lot more virtual than in person therapy. Therapy on text, chat, calling, it’s gaining a lot of traction because it’s cheaper, its faster and with budget cuts that is apparently what we can expect for the future.
What is your perspective on how the budget cuts will affect your field?
It is taking the whole person to person connection out of it. From my perspective, when I started this job I wasn’t so kicked about it because I like meeting the person, feeling and understanding their energy, speaking to them, things like that. But, then when I started working with the new technology, you see the outreach and how many people you can reach out to and who are already in need; which you can’t do sitting in an office. That kind of balances it out for me. Other than that, I know there have been changes from the budget cuts but it hasn’t so far directly affected me as of yet.
Do you have any advice for our readers?
I hate giving advice. I never give advice. My advice is to not give advice, just listen.