Here at HBFIT, we are true believers that your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Therefore, we are excited to share with you our new series: Mental Health Diaries. Follow this Q & A series as we share experiences of inspiring female mental health advocates. Our first article of the series is about Chetna Mehta, an artist and mental health mystic.
Chetna is a mixed media artist, mental wellness mystic and healer. She holds an MA in counseling psychology and is a cultivator of a business, mosaiceye, centered on visual art, affirmation and workshop. Chetna currently facilitates creative and healing workshops in the bay area and around the country. She describes herself as someone who loves creative expression, ritualistic self-reflection, and the synchronicities of our universal interconnection.
1. Chetna, Have you ever/do you suffer from a mental health issue yourself? If so, what was/ is it
I’ve predominantly struggled with social anxiety and clinical depression, it was always hard to tease apart the two because depression by nature is immensely isolating, having made me feel inadequate to connect and share space with others. My mental health has been most tested in my life when I’ve been in a new and challenging environment, uncomfortable in my own dramatic growth, and/or out of touch with my heart wisdom.
The first time I experienced persistent depression was in my early 20s when I was at a corporate job which felt secure out of line with my greater purpose. I was commuting for 2-3 hours a day as well and that itself was pushing me to the edge. I was living independently for the first time and the adjustment away from family was difficult. I had also gone through a breakup of a lengthy relationship and was not drawing healthy boundaries around who else I engaged with intimately. I finally left my job when I felt like I had saved enough to pursue my heart’s desires to travel, study psychology and live closer to my family and when I did, the depression subsided radically.
The second time I experienced depression, more severe and paired with social anxiety, was in graduate school for counseling psychology. I never thought I’d be back in school again after finishing my undergraduate; school, especially grade school, was more of a traumatizing experience for me in the past than a nourishing one. In an educational system that ranks students, creates hierarchy, and favors very specific learning styles and types of intelligences, I left grade school feeling unintelligent, not good enough to be at the “top,” and blind to my emotional, spatial, interpersonal and existential intelligences that public school systems hardly recognize. So being back in school, even graduate school, triggered overwhelming imposter syndrome and a grave lack of my creative and authentic expression both inside and outside the classroom. Lastly and probably not leastly, I felt varied degrees of vicarious trauma of my clients, the characters in our case studies and anyone I came across in the field who was burned out.
Two unforgettable experiences with clinical depression and anxiety have given me great feedback on how I can be self-compassionate and honoring of my heart’s wisdom and intuition; I’ve begun to notice when episodes might arise and I’ve been learning more about what I need to do to help myself. I know that I need to intentionally reach out to the people I trust when I’m beginning to feel symptoms coming on again, especially when I’m in a drastically new environment or phase of life. I also know that I need to, in times of instability, pay kind attention to my feelings, thoughts and fears. I try to consistently recognize that depression and anxiety are immense feedback-givers on how I need to lead my life. Mental illness has taught me how to apply more compassion, patience and investigation, to allow space to pass through and learn from it. Although I could experience depression again at any time, it’s in my control to be proactive in taking care of myself and responding to early symptoms with attunement and compassion.
2. As a woman how do you think we operate differently from men? How does that impact our mental health?
In my studies and life experience, I’ve learned that women tend to internalize issues more than men do, who tend to externalize. Perhaps because of social expectation and allowance, women experience their mental illness symptoms mostly as depression, anxiety, self-harm, isolation and low self-esteem. Men tend to experience mental illness as aggression/violence, anger, substance abuse and impulsiveness. For me, I’ve tended to internalize and become numb before I become angry, blame and harm myself before I critically looked at my surroundings, and dismiss my own needs before setting respectful boundaries with others for my health.
Women also tend to identify more closely with their relationships than men do, perhaps because women have been primary caregivers for so long. This is immensely true for me because if things in my relationships are not going smoothly, I get really distracted, sad or agitated. I have a hard time compartmentalizing and I feel the conflict in my bones. I’ve observed men to generally be better at compartmentalizing, getting absorbed with their work or careers for example, before feeling wrapped up in their relationships. Relatedly, I know that when I’m feeling bad, reaching out and confiding in my people and investing in healing my relationships can alter my mood effectively.
3. How do you practice self care?
Daily drawing is an important form of self care of me. Specifically, I create art that visually affirms me and us, especially women of color, and validates our feelings and needs for love and belonging. I approach the page with the intention to answer, “what do I want to hear?” or “what do I want to feel?” Sometimes, rather than drawing what I want to see, I simply draw what I’m feeling, exactly how it is; I allow myself to bring it out of my head and onto the paper to see my feelings as they are.
Another deep self-care practice for me is allowing nature to heal me by taking a hike, climbing trees or swimming in a body of water with intention to be cleansed. I also climb trees when I feel low or lacking. Spending time perched up in a tree, being held by its powerful branches, coexisting beneath the shelter with the bees, beetles and ants bring me delightful, humility and power. The trees speak to us and gift us with so many physical and energetic gifts. I hear them most in the silence of my meditations with them; if I’m having a hard time making a decision on something or feeling lost, spending time in a tree often leaves me with more insight. Much of it’s healing comes from how it challenges me to notice my body, attune to my limbs, practicing balance, strength and courage while climbing the tree. I try not to hold expectation of what I’ll be after spending time with trees, but when I’m present and engaged, gentle and aware of my body while carefully and freely climbing a tree, the healing comes with the flow.
4. How do you help others in terms of supporting them on their own journeys and relationships with mental health?
Affirmation is a powerful tool for me; I’ve come to realize that I feel more natural in giving affirmations to others when I’m doing it many times in a day for myself. If I’m not doing it for myself, it feels cheesy and ingenuine, and often invalidating. I communicate affirmation both in my interactions therapeutically and personally, and certainly in my art. My visual affirmation artwork was birthed, after all, from me trying to teach myself affirmation and self-empowerment. The art I create is meant to lift us up, allow us to envision the greatness, gratitude and the good more within ourselves.
5. What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given for taking care of your mind and body?
Growing up, my parents, especially my mother, encouraged me to journal. I remember having nightmares as a kid and my mother advised me to have a nightmare journal and it was painful to relive the nightmares by writing them down, but the nightmares subsided soon after. So the best advice I’ve received was to journal, or more expansively, express my thoughts and feelings in some way that externalizes it from my mind and body.
I’ve seen so much that in order to know how to take care of my mind and body, I have to pay great attention to myself intentionally and with nurturance. I’ve have to spend time noticing, naming and investigating my feelings, patterns of thinking and behavior, and habits. Journalling has also helped me pay attention to these aspects of self by allowing me to see on paper what I tend to think and how to tend to consequently behave.
6. Advice for those who may be struggling with their own battles?
“YOU ARE NOT ALONE.” The second you’re thinking you’re alone, just know that you’re not- plainly and matter a factly, you are not alone. A quote that I think about a lot by the Roman playwright Terence that I first heard through Maya Angelou is, “I am human…nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” It’s such a telling statement of how deeply unalone we are, just by being human and living this wild and wonder-filled human experience. It speaks to the fact that as humans, none of us are exempt from joy, love, pain or suffering. We’re all in this together.