Sharing a Warm Space in an Age of Isolation

Zeinab Masud tallks to Dr Sheeza Mohsin about mental health, Pakistan, the diaspora and the Coronavirus

Sharing a Warm Space in an Age of Isolation
In this grim time of Corona, it’s easy to fall prey to the issues that isolation brings. Today more than ever, it’s important to be aware of the mental health issues that exist in our society and to realize that confinement can be a trigger for repressed grief or trauma.

It seemed like the perfect time to track down Dr Sheeza Mohsin. Based in Dallas, and a practicing marriage and family therapist and author, Sheeza speaks with clarity and a careful understanding of the human psyche.

Her wisdom has critical significance for both clients and counselors.

As we talk, Sheeza sheds light on the vital aspects of mental health and the importance of getting the right kind of care.


Zeinab Masud: Dr. Sheeza Mohsin, PhD, LMFT, LPC, Marriage & Family Therapist.

Impressive credentials! Please explain the kind of learning you’ve had, as it’s important for us to realize the significance of correct training in a field as sensitive as mental health.

Sheeza Mohsin: I feel it’s important to realize the difference between the different types of learning involved with respect to a graduate degree and a doctorate.

The first is about consumption. We are consumers of information. And this is important.

With a doctorate, however, you learn to create and to produce information that is well balanced and well researched. That was the differentiating factor for me. I noticed the lack of the tools which were available to our diaspora, the South Asian community. I wanted more expertise.
“My dream is to get a grant in Pakistan where we can fund a formal organization that can regulate mental health practices in the country”

I realized that I would have to borrow from the west and modify to make it workable for our culture.

Being a licensed marriage and family therapist, and also a licensed professional counsellor

basically means that I’ve been trained, evaluated and certified by a regulatory body which understands individuals and relationships.

ZM: Your career progression has been unconventional...

SM: Yes it was, I was a Human Resources professional. My strength has always been dealing and connecting with people. During my teenage years, I noticed the relationships around me. I saw what was broken and I didn’t know how to fix it. It made me feel helpless.

“In terms of my work, of the people initiating counselling, 30 percent are men and 70 percent are women, but in terms of staying and continuing therapy it is 50-50. Women tend to exit sooner”

While I was in Executive Coaching, I began to look at the psychology of relationships.

Very often I was the person who people came to, to vent.

I was told by my bosses: “You’re not a therapist. Mind your boundaries.”

I really wasn’t aware of this world of counselling. But an interest in the psychology of relationships triggered my curiosity.

Another reason for this transition was that I became a mom. A corporate career didn’t suit me. I wanted a balance. Yet I still wanted to impact lives.

ZM: In Pakistan, many people are practicing  marriage counselling without having specialized in that particular field...

SM: I am very concerned about this. I do work with families and couples in Pakistan. At times they have already been adversely impacted by someone not correctly trained to work with relationships, even though they may have the best of intentions. Working with couples requires a totally different kind of muscle. Relational work involves a different set of skills. The fact is that I’m very happy to see the industry growing in Pakistan but when I interview therapists there in order to refer them, I do realize the need for rigorous training...

ZM: Despite the best of intentions, a lack of specialized training can do the kind of damage a wrong medication does...

SM: Absolutely right. There are two populations I’m most concerned about.

One is the kind of person who lacks proper training and the other is the religious leaders.

By the time the case comes to me, it’s often irreparable. It’s painful to see.

My dream is to get a grant in Pakistan where we can fund a formal organization that can regulate mental health practices in the country.

ZM: You’ve combined literary skill with therapeutic sensibility...

SM: I never really thought that I would be someone writing a book. It was more of a long term goal. Behind Closed Doors is an attempt to bring a basic understanding of relationship dynamics to the South Asian population. There were two hidden goals involved which lead to the idea of the book.

One was that as I was working  with South Asian families, I realized that the more well informed you were, (psycho education) the better your receptiveness. Your brain had had a chance to plant seeds of relational dynamics, psycho educational tools. I’m a strategic therapist: I want to liberate my clients fast. I don’t want them to be in therapy forever. The idea was to educate the South Asian community and enable them to see themselves in relation to their family and their relationships.

The second goal was to provide relief to those struggling alone,in terms of having a secret, dealing with a stigma. I wanted them to know that there are other people struggling like that. This is a self help book.

ZM: What are the primary issues facing people from our part of the world in terms of the clientele that you see?

SM: Marital challenges: infidelity, sexual and emotional intimacy

A lot of people are teetering on the brink of divorce. Another common issue is adult children facing familial strain in terms of values. The norms of the West vs the expectations of their parents’ culture.

ZM: From culture to gender, I’ve noticed women are more receptive to the idea of therapy?

SM: This is a very interesting question.

In terms of my work, of the people initiating counselling, 30 percent are men and 70 percent are women, but in terms of staying and continuing therapy it is 50-50. Women tend to exit sooner.

ZM: Why is that?

SM: Women have a community, a network, hairdressers etc. Men are disadvantaged in this arena because they are blamed for everything. Women come with a preconceived notion thinking that “if you fix my husband the problem will be solved.”

Then they find out “I have to fix myself as well” and they don’t like that. There is a cognitive dissonance that happens. I am a referee. I create a neutral safe place. I’m not biased in favourite of women. Men don’t confide in the same way. Often I’m the first person they have spoken to, the first person they have cried in front of.

ZM: Advice to budding counselors?

SM: There are three core aspects here. Continue creating safety for your clients. That is the only way they feel they can be vulnerable. And unless they are vulnerable we cannot facilitate any change in their life.

Secondly don’t advise prematurely. Don’t provide solutions. Do that sparingly. It’s not a good idea to make them feel that they are not capable of developing the skill of solving problems on their own.

And thirdly, practice being nonjudgmental. That is your inner work. As Rumi says we have to meet them without the labels of right-doing and wrong-doing and that creates great therapy.

ZM: The confines created by the Coronavirus have had a hard impact on mental health. What’s your perspective?

SM: One way to look at the Coronavirus pandemic is a surprise test for every faculty, every skill, every behavior that we have or have not been practicing or paying attention to.

Mental health and relationships being a primary faculty in the spotlight.

This pandemic will give us a very deep realization of what’s broken up and what needs attention as it will present its worst side.

From domestic violence increasing to childhood sexual abuse being at a higher risk, to triggering episodes of anger or panic attacks, and couples feeling pushed to the brink of divorce; the absolute necessity of a healthy mind and mindset will be heightened.

We must choose to strengthen and develop our resilience while increasing compassion for those that are struggling.