I first heard of Parissima Taheri-Maynard in April of this year, when a friend brought her up in reference to her amazing initiative Wir sind auch Wien. Wir sind auch Wien, translated as We are Vienna too (or We too are Vienna), is a platform Taheri-Maynard has begun that offers safe spaces regarding mental health and self-care for the Black, Indigenous, and POC community in Vienna. This past July, Taheri was kind enough to give us her time in interviewing her. Her insights into the need for an inclusive space for minority groups within mental health and the general state of contemporary mental health are moving, wise, and inundated with her intellect. Moreover, the action she has already taken towards bettering the mental health community both in Vienna and abroad are signs of her determination and warmth towards the world. Born to a half Austrian, half Iranian mother, and a Bahamian father, 29 year old Taheri lives and has grown up in Vienna. After attending the American International School she went to London to study Social Anthropology, and eventually did a Masters at the Tavistock Clinic in London in psychoanalytic studies.
It was really, really interesting. We read Freud up and down. All his works. I got really interested in that.
After she was finished there, she lived in Italy for a while before eventually finding herself back in Vienna, studying at Sigmund Freud University. She has recently completed her second masters, which qualifies her as a psychologist in Austria,
What does she do right now in terms of her career?
I just finished working in an eating disorder clinic, which I loved, it’s great work. I got to meet people of all backgrounds, of all ages, that all have different experiences. I learned so much from it, but after two years I wanted to explore some other routes I teach mental health at a refugee school, which I really really enjoy too. It honestly gives me life in today’s political climate to know that I am engaged in something important and that I am on the right side. Other than that I work for an organization that goes to different classrooms in various schools and holds workshops on topics like anger, bullying, equality, and kindness.
I am someone who likes jumping between jobs. I like having different things to do on different workdays. I like moving between different environments, between people, between groups, between conflicts… I prefer that a lot to being every day in the same thing. I think that that also helps me cherish my mental health because all of the areas in which I move can get heavy, and so not having to do one for 5 days a week but being able to swap and move throughout is really good for me.
And how did you get to starting Wir sind auch Wien?
As I started studying in Vienna, I noticed a big contrast to studying in London, which is that in Vienna, the field of psychology is a massively white field. I think that it is in London too, but I definitely was surrounded by a lot more academics or people doing research in the POC community. I found it a much bigger topic than it was here in Vienna, so I really missed that. And it was actually in the process of finding a therapist myself here in Vienna that I started finding myself looking at all the pictures looking for a person of colour therapist and… no luck. No luck at all. And so, I ended up with a white therapist, like I think most people here do. But there were things I felt like I couldn’t open up to her about. And there were things where I felt like she just wouldn’t understand. And that kind of inspired me to start a Facebook page, named Wir sind auch Wien.
It’s basically a platform with the intention of just having a safe space for mental health for people of colour in Vienna. So a minority mental health platform. And I got so many likes and so much support, and so many people reached out to me and told me “this is exactly what I needed. I’ve been looking for a therapist of colour.”
At the moment I don’t do one on one treatments yet, but what I decided to do is create group workshops in Vienna with a fixed group that commits to a semester together (it’s a closed group so you can’t enter once the group has formed) and holds workshops on mental health topics. We discuss things such as depression, anxiety, burnout, sexuality, etc. It’s a solely people of colour group, and we just finished our first semester together. It was a really, really great success and I think people who attend therapy with a white therapist can still use the workshops as an extra safe space, and an extra support system where they can exchange about particular topics that maybe they can’t in their therapy. We have a break during the summer, but I’ve set up a summer school where members from my group hold workshops on self-care techniques they use. We all have our own tips and tricks, I’m really excited to get us to share them.
Why is it specifically important that minority groups have access to mental health professionals who may be from their same minority group? What are the effects of such a small focus allotted to people of colour in the psychology and mental health world?
It’s difficult because I think we all learn in psychology that any therapist should be trained enough and be objective enough (keyword: objective) to treat any kind of patient. So you don’t need to have had an addiction to work with someone who has an addiction. You don’t need to have had Post Traumatic Stress to work with people who have Post Traumatic Stress. And, I get that. But with that, comes the idea that you wouldn’t need to be Jewish to work with Holocaust survivors, or a refugee to work with refugees, or a person-of-colour to work with people-of-colour. Now, I think that’s quite interesting.
“I’m not trying to be an influencer, I’m just trying to offer a space for those people of colour”
It’s 2019 and I think we’ve come to a place where we kind of criticise colour-blindness. It’s no longer “I don’t see colour”, we’ve kind of caught on to the fact that we should see colour because colour exists in our social and political world. So even though it’s a construct that has been invented through colonialism, it has still had effects and it still very much exists. The fact that we’re criticising colour-blindness all over the place and we haven’t reached to criticising it within the mental health profession is crazy to me.
Opening up to people about your deepest concerns, worries, fears, whatever it be, is super hard. For everyone. Especially for people who have experienced specific traumas, and studies have shown that racial discrimination has a traumatic effect in our body and mind, so I think what we should be doing is making the space as comfortable as possible to whoever needs that support. And if that means we create a sphere where they feel more comfortable speaking to someone with a similar cultural background, or let’s say, a similar sexual identity- identity doesn’t have to just be racial- then I think that’s something we should do without thinking about it too much. I definitely think we should aim to make a space as comfortable as possible to promote as many people as possible to access mental health support.
As an example, I get lots of emails from people of colour who are in or are looking for mental health support. And I get really upset messages from people telling me that they’re in this or that psychiatric department, for example, telling a therapist about their experience, and the therapist will say something like: “Racism doesn’t exist, it’s 2019, this is all in your head”. I think it’s really ridiculous to hear that that’s what’s being said to clients of colour in the world. So I think that there’s not enough of a focus in the profession on minorities and what minorities go through. I can speak for myself and say that it was a very small part of my degree, so I know from the education standpoint that there’s extremely little focus on it. Aspiring psychologists and psychotherapists need to be keen to search for this theory, which I do because I am a person of colour, and maybe we have some allies who do that too, but the majority probably doesn’t do that. They take what’s part of their curriculum and they don’t hunt for further knowledge or further studies (which makes sense). We can’t all be specialised in everything, but I definitely think that intersectionality should have a bigger part in education and training. Not only for psychologists, for social workers, for all professions that take care of or support people. And people with mixed backgrounds are part of Austria’s community.
In research studies (even Austrian research) created here on psychology on different treatments, it’s very rare that you’d find any research done on people of colour. That makes you wonder: Who’s included in your studies? Where is the interest that studies are supposed to make these bodies feel better, these minds feel better? Where are we in that? That’s another thing that shows an aspect of white privilege that many white people are not even aware of. That most studies that are psychological that are done in this country are aimed at them.
I’m wondering what you think: Do you find that the limited number of therapists who are people of colour is coming from an issue of opportunity, an issue of exposure?… Where do you think the root of the issue is coming from?
There are a few reasons, I think, for this. First of all, I do think that minority communities are further away from mental health support. Let’s say, there’s more stigma about it, there’s not enough faith in it, which often has to do with a lot of religiousness and spirituality, and is taken in contrast to mental health support, which is a shame because those two things can run side by side. I think that there are other reasons too, that access so far has been difficult. It’s quite pricey to get mental health support and I think people of colour have less of a chance to portray themselves in a “weakness” or “weak position”, to take time off, or take care of themselves. Conditions often didn’t and don’t always allow that for minority communities. So I think that minority communities are a bit further away, generally, from mental health support in taking advantage of it as a client, let alone going into it as a profession. What definitely doesn’t help it, is that it’s a very long field of study and a very expensive field of study. I think that that’s global too, not just in Austria. It’s a very long and pricey path, and I witnessed it myself. There are a lot of points where access is made harder for people. I think it scares off a lot of people. There’s not a lot of placements, even fewer paid ones, so I actually made it as a goal for myself to offer placements once I can. Particularly for people of colour to just get an insight into the field, to just do a few months of work shadowing and get a feel and maybe get into it.
Obviously, even better would be to offer some funding for the community specifically, but I don’t know yet how exactly that will work. I also have made sure that whoever I’ve worked with in Wir sind auch Wien are people of colour. So I had my good friend Don, who is a black artist, create my logo for me. I collaborated with the one other black British psychotherapist in Vienna who I know works a lot with personality disorders. I connected her and helped her organise a group just of people of colour who are suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder, and that was a really good group that’s extending now for a second semester. So I’m trying now to create more connections and more access for people of colour. I also work closely with a BIPOC Social Worker, Farah, who has given me a lot of insight into the common space psychologists and social workers work in. Our friendship also takes the form of supervision every so often, which helps me massively. I have met many really wonderful and skilled people of colour in this whole process, and I hope we all combine our efforts and expertise.
Taheri’s efforts to create spaces for People of Colour extends past Wir sind auch Wien, and her future ambitions. She’s making room in academics as well. This past year Taheri published an article on the psychological feelings of inclusion in mixed-race females in Vienna, which was one of the first psychological studies in Austria aimed particularly at the psychological experience of people of colour.
I hope to do more of that. I hope that I motivate others to do more of that.
What is your projected growth with your initiative? Where do you see this project going, expansion-wise?
Before telling you the goal, I want to tell you what I went into it with. I don’t know if you’ve heard of a podcast from the states called ‘Therapy for Black Girls’. It’s really great, it’s an American psychotherapist who created an online directory of Black therapists. You can type in what state you’re in, you can filter it by more, and you get a list. And I said, “I’m going to do this for Vienna”. And that was actually how I started this idea, quickly figuring out that there are no therapists to put on this list, or there are very few. So obviously that set me back because I was like “I’m going to spend all this time designing this really nice, filterable database, and then I’m not going to have anyone to put on it.”
So I still have the same goal, but it has now moved away from a directory, because I figured it could be really political, people may not really want to be in a directory. But, I hope that my page just gets the access that it needs. I don’t care about followers. I don’t want anyone to follow me who doesn’t want to be following me, I’m not trying to be an influencer, I’m just trying to offer a space for those people of colour who happen to want to be informed about mental health things going on, and those who want to talk about it. In terms of size, that’s not necessarily my most important thing. On the other hand, what I do hope is that whoever does go healing and care professions, who is a person of colour, reaches out to me. I would love to connect to the people who exist in the field. I would love to know them, to be able to forward them to people I know, to work with them, to show them off to the community, to do workshops together. I would love to kind of combine knowledge and skills and set up a group.
Our name is Wir sind auch Wien, so this doesn’t only have to be those from the African Diaspora and Indigenous peoples, there are lots of other minorities in Vienna. There are Turkish minorities, there are Eastern European minorities from the war in the Balkans etc, and I don’t necessarily want to be the one to speak for them because I’m not Turkish and haven’t experienced war in the Balkans. I would love to connect to other therapists in other minority groups and have them hold workshops through Wir sinch auch Wien as well. I’d love to create a union of minority therapists and psychologists in Vienna so that whoever is a minority reaches out so that I can connect them and invite them to things! So that’s the goal!
I’m wondering what you think about where mental health is right now, and where it can go in the future. Has the stigma around mental health changed, or do we just talk more? Is social media a helpful or hurtful factor in mental health conversations?
First of all, I think that everyone who is honest about mental health online is already doing a big service, because, if anything, it’s making it more possible to talk about, share, and show imperfection on social media, which I think was a big problem about social media when all these platforms started. It was always just, “let me show you my best side, and my nicest holiday, and my newly done hair”, and it was never “oh you know, I’m not doing well” and – well, I get it! I mean, not everyone feels like that is something they want to share with the world, that’s a pretty vulnerable place. I think social media has done a lot. You can actually decorate your Instagram or Facebook to make it a place you want to be and you want to hang out, and a place where you want to feel safe and want to feel good, and not a space where you constantly feel bad about yourself. I think that we should all regularly do a complete cleanse of our Instagram and Facebook to make sure it remains a place where we feel safe and good and confident. I think that that is possible as there are so many great accounts from all over the world that share mental health. Their own mental health, mental health tips, you can add to them, you can write in the comments. It’s become possible; if you want to be engaged in that world, it exists out there, and I think if anything it’s great that it’s out there and it’s great that it’s made people more open. I do hope though that people don’t rely on it, just like I hope people wouldn’t rely on google for medical diagnosis. I hope people don’t rely on all the mental health resources online and use it instead of getting support. I think everyone who can access support should get support and then use Instagram, Facebook, whatever it may be, as additional support. I don’t think that it should replace primary psychological or psychiatric support, but I do think it’s a great thing to have to decorate your social space so that when you’re scrolling before bed or on the tube or wherever, it doesn’t bring you down.
I think that through social media, mental health is becoming more of a topic right now, I mean “self-care” or “mindfulness”, this hashtag of millennial life, I think that many people preach that a lot and don’t actually live it. I think that people need to be able to turn on social media and then turn it off again, like on msn messager we used to be able to say “be right back” when we went to dinner or something.. now we are constantly available. We also need to gravitate away from oversimplifications that I see frequently on social media. For instance, seeing something that says “if you turn your smile upside down everything will be fine”… I’ve posted a few of them because I think they’re ridiculous and I just want to warn people away from simplifying things. I know social media is like a quick scroll and no one wants to read a paragraph, but be careful when simplifying things or reading simplifications. Know those things aren’t that easy. They’re complex. There aren’t these one-sentence answers to mental health. Quick quotes are what Instagram runs by, not an actual story of what’s going on.
I also think that people, maybe, through the use of Instagram, (because people think they’re sharing everything because they’re so open) they might forget to personally reach out to people and say “hey, how are you doing? Are you okay?” I hope that that doesn’t go away because that’s still the best way to support someone who’s going through a struggle or to even understand that they are struggling in the first place.
In general with mental health, I think we have a lot more to improve as a field. A lot more sensitivity among intersectionality, and the different struggles that people go through, and I mean all sides.
Obviously, with feminism, I’m looking at struggles that women have been going through for years and haven’t had the space to talk about, and in the same way, I’m looking at men and how the patriarchy disadvantaged them.
I’m looking at everyone.
I’m a bit worried about how the pharmaceutical industry has created and pushed drugs and psychopharmaceuticals onto people. One the one hand, it’s gotten a lot of people out of hospitals, out of psychiatric wards, able to interact with their work, live in their family dynamics without the issues that obviously psychosis or other depressions could cause. So, on one hand, it’s fantastic how medication is able to create conditions for people that they otherwise wouldn’t have. One the other hand, I think that people are very fast to turn to medication without turning to what should be (in my opinion) compulsory psychological support next to medication to actually work through what’s going on instead of just bandaging it.
What would you say are your words of wisdom to anyone who feels they may need mental health support? Because there are so many self-diagnoses out there, especially now through social media, it’s quite easy to identify one’s struggles to a label. But what would you say to someone who’s struggling and thinks they need help?
First and foremost, I would avoid diagnoses or self-diagnoses in general. This is because the process of diagnosing something is quite intense. There are lots of different materials used to diagnose something, lots of different instruments, so, it’s actually impossible to diagnose something by yourself. Plus, why? What’s the point? We as humans are used to categorising things and wanting to know what category something fits into and actually it’s not necessarily going to be the thing that helps you. I do think though, that if you’re reading things and you say “Oh I can identify with that, that sounds like something I’m dealing with:” it could give you a clue into what kind of therapy you should be looking for. It might be like “oh this could be anxiety” or “oh this could be an eating disorder”, that could bring different specialisations. In general, though, the first thing I would do is to try and find ways you can get personal one-on-one, face-to-face help. If that’s not possible face-to-face, there are many people who do Skype therapy. Chat therapy, I think is not the best. But, if it’s the only thing possible I think it’s a good option too. I know people are normally gearing away from student therapists. I would try to open people’s minds to that. First off, student therapists are in their training, they have all the newest studies, they’re usually on it, maybe more than therapists that haven’t had the read to get on all the newest studies. Also, student therapists are under strict supervision, which means they are regularly checked on, to make sure they’re working correctly, which is also something that an older, more experienced therapist will likely not have, or will have much less of. So, I’m trying to get people to trust student therapists more. It’s usually much cheaper, and more accessible for people, and I can really say that it’s worth doing. The first step is to find support. To try a session, try talking about it, see if you connect with the therapist, the psychologist, or psychiatrist, and have a space to talk about things. An objective neutral space that isn’t a partner or friends or family. Yes, it’s great if you can talk to all those people about it, but at the end of the day, it may affect your relationship or friendship if you’re trying to use them as a therapist.
In discussing more future goals for herself, Taheri mentioned her love of participating in and hosting workshops and lectures.
I love when I get invited to hold lectures, I got invited last year to Berlin, to the Centre of Intersectional Justice to talk about community healing. It was fantastic, I met so many interesting people. And then this year in spring I was invited to the Black Indigenous People of Colour Empowerment weekend in outer Austria, in the mountains. It was so nice, I got to hold a workshop there about what we particularly need for mental health. I was called up by an organisation here that works as social work support and judicial support for binational couples, so international couples. So questions of bringing a partner from another country into Austria. They do a lot of workshops and have me for a workshop next year on what I wish my parents knew, or what we wish our parents new. As well as a workshop for parents of third culture kids, third culture in the sense of kids who have to create their own culture out of their parent’s culture and the culture they live in now, so migrant children. I love going into different environments and holding workshops, it gives me a chance to meet different people, it gives me a chance to speak to different crowds, a different audience, different age groups and so that’s really great, I hope I get to keep doing that.
If you want to find more of Parissima Taheri’s work you can look up her initiative: Wir Sind Auch Wien
Found on Facebook and via their Instagram account: @wir.sind.auch.wien
Art by Desiree Finlayson