Partner Spotlight: Akshita Vaidyanathan, Associate Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Earlier this year, Y-WE launched the Healing Justice Collective, an initiative that connects current and past Y-WE participants to trusted mental health practitioners and covers the cost. In this series we are highlighting the partners and practitioners who make the Healing Justice Collective possible. Akshita Vaidyanathan, MSW, LSWAIC (she/they) is one of the therapists actively holding spots for Y-WE clients. She is an Associate Licensed Clinical Social Worker whose practice is guided by principles of anti-oppression, anti-racism, harm reduction and collective liberation, and we connected with them through our partnership with Whole Valley Therapy

Listen to the audio recording of this interview between Akshita and Y-WE’s Community Wellness & Mental Health Specialist, Shaena.

Q: Tell me about you. What’s your background, experience, interests? 

A: Well, I am a licensed clinical social worker, associate. I am queer. I’m Indian. I am an immigrant. I primarily work with clients who are young adults, who are also queer people of color. Many of them are South Asian as well. I am into dancing, nature, hanging out with my friends, watching TV, and reading books of a wide variety. I genuinely enjoy some sci fi and also some horror too. I enjoy spending time with my kitty. Those are some things about me. 

Q: How long have you been doing healing and therapeutic work? What are your areas of focus?

A: I’ve been doing mental health related/survivor support work in a less professional sense since 2015, when I was an undergrad, and have been doing various things since then. I’ve worked in a research lab before working with neurodivergent kids. I have worked at a mental health non profit in South India that supports people from many different areas of life, but primarily, lower income folks or previously houseless folks, many of whom were women. And then in Singapore, where I’m from as well, I’ve done outreach work with sex workers before. When I was in grad school I did some peer support with survivors. I think my main motivation into becoming a therapist started from wanting to support survivors of sexual violence and intimate partner violence. And that’s still something that is a main focus of mine. But it’s kind of broadened to survivors of general trauma. And a lot of people I work with now, as a therapist, which I’ve been doing for two years since I graduated, are people of color, and queer people of color, and people who are kind of on the intersections of multiple marginalizations. And people who exist in those margins tend to also have experiences of trauma just because of the world that we live in, and how it can be traumatizing to individuals that, you know, come from marginalized backgrounds.

Q: Where do your passions live, and what are the values that guide your practice? 

A: The strongest value that guides my practice as a therapist is being non judgmental. And what that means is just accepting people, where they’re at and not placing value judgments on people’s coping mechanisms, and also not placing value judgments on people’s behavioral patterns that they might have learned as a form of survival. That just also ties to my value of just being someone who is compassionate. And I think a lot of the work I do is helping people release shame and bring in more compassion to themselves and understanding to know why they might be the way that they are, and why they might engage in behaviors that they might engage in from a less judgmental perspective. I think that connects to me having a framework around harm reduction, which also is all about meeting people where they’re at, and not placing value judgments on coping mechanisms as it relates to maybe substance use or self harm or other kinds of behaviors as well.

I have a systems level understanding of the way that people’s mental health, I don’t know, intersects with the systems that we live under. And I bring that into my work as well by naming that, and, you know, releasing kind of individual blame from people on certain ways that they might be living. I think that we live in a really individualistic society, and that trickles into healing and mental health, where people are taught that there’s all of these things that are wrong with them. And they have to be fixed in all of these different ways. I just don’t think that that is a helpful framework to allow people to heal.

I also think that one thing that I bring into my work with people is encouraging them to connect with the communities that they’re a part of, because I find that a lot of folks I work with can be pretty isolated, which is why they seek out therapy to begin with. To find, you know, some form of connection because they’re not finding that in their personal life. But yeah, I think that connecting people to community is really important. It’s especially important for queer people of color to find others that share those identities with them, so that they can relate to other people and have people to lean on outside of mental health systems that are not always helpful or supportive to historically marginalized folks. I think a lot of my motivation now is also connected to me understanding that I am a part of a community, which is the queer community but also a community of people who are queer persons of color and I feel a responsibility and just desire to show up for my community in the ways that I can, using my skills to do that, and I very much enjoy doing healing work with people, whether that’s individually, or in groups, or also in relationships. And so that’s kind of the way that I like to show up for my community. And I feel like all of my clients are a part of my community, as well.

Q: What drew you to the work that Y-WE is doing with the Healing Justice Collective?

A: I feel like when I was in high school, I would have really benefited from having a regular therapist that I saw. I was struggling a lot when it came to tying my academics to my self worth. And I also was struggling with things socially, that I just kept to myself a lot and internalized a lot of beliefs about myself being lacking in a lot of ways. And I did go to our school counselor, I think once or twice, and she was nice. But I think I would have benefited from seeing someone in a more consistent way who would have helped me regulate my emotions better, and maybe not internalize a lot of beliefs about myself that I then later had to do a lot of work of unlearning. And I only started to go to regular therapy in my junior year of college, when it had gotten, I think, a lot worse by then. But I think, intervening earlier when I was in high school, I think it would have been really beneficial for me to just have a place to verbally process what was going on in my life that was not judgmental, and with someone who didn’t have any kind of stake in my life, other than to listen to me, because I think friendships and family relationships can just be complicated, especially when you’re a teenager. It is really meaningful to have someone to talk to who is not associated with your life in a personal way that you can just have as a sounding board, especially a trusted adult. So I think that connects to the reason I wanted to be a part of the Healing Justice Collective, [which] was because I think it’s a really great resource for youth to access, which they probably wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. I want to be able to provide my perspectives and my skills and services as a therapist and counselor to those who might need it because I feel like a younger version of me would have benefited from it.

Q: What has that experience been like for you?

A: It’s been a new experience for me, because I typically don’t work with folks that are so young. I do see people that are young adults in college. But it’s been new for me to just understand what people around that age are like, because I don’t often interact with them. And I think the first time I interacted with them was through Y-WE when I was mentoring. But I think young people have a lot of thoughts and great ideas. And also just thoughts about themselves that are often just simmering. And it’s been cool to just have a space to talk to them about those things that are coming up. For example, how you tie your worth to your academic performance has been a theme amongst both the clients that I work with, and also talking about things like sexuality and relationships, more so even in a general sense, and I think it’s just been cool to have those conversations with young people and hear what their perspectives are and share what my perspectives are and how mine have grown over time. 

Q: Since you have mentored with Y-WE and since you have been providing therapy as part of the collective, what’s been the most joyous and/or motivating part of that work?

A: I think what you said about, like, there’s a part of it that feels like healing to a younger version of myself. Because I never, you know, engaged in activities like Y-WE offers and didn’t have access to find adults or young adults who were accepting and kind and open. And so I think what’s been really nice is seeing what kind of impact it has. And I know that for some of the young people that I’ve mentored with, and also some of my clients, they’ve just said that Y-WE is such a healing space for them. And that they don’t have that anywhere else in their life, and that it makes a huge difference to their day to day, just knowing that every week, there’s an activity that they’re going to go to, or this is a resource that they can access at any time if they need it. And I think it just feels good to know that young people have that kind of safety net, emotional safety net, community safety net, if they need it.

Q: What have you learned, being involved in this way?

A: Yeah, I think it’s a learning process for me, because I haven’t been a therapist for teens and young people like this before. So I think it’s just the ongoing learning process of understanding what their needs are and how to shift the way I am as a therapist. I’m also finding that it’s not actually that different than working with my older, younger adult clients as well. And that people do have similar things that they want to talk about. And because I think my personality is just kind of young in general, I’m able to shift easily to working with young people in a way that I don’t notice a huge difference between working with young adults. So that has been a learning for me. I think I expected it to be a lot different than working with my other clients. But I found that it’s not actually a whole lot different. 

Q: What does healing mean to you and how do you know healing is happening?

A: Healing is about connecting to true and authentic parts of yourself. And it’s an ongoing process that I don’t think ever ends in your lifetime because we’re all just constantly changing and shifting, depending on the period of life we’re in as well. And so I think it’s also learning how to ride those waves of change, I don’t think healing is about getting to a point where you’re never sad or never angry or never have negative reactions. I think it’s about learning how to accept that those waves are going to come and, like, “what are ways that I can show up for myself when those waves do come?” Or “how can I lean on my supports when those waves do show up?” And also taking accountability for when you’re harmful to someone else, or when you’re reactive to someone else. And being compassionate towards yourself. Through all of that, I think that those are things that come to mind when I think of healing, overarchingly, and just learning how to be open and vulnerable with your community, but in a way that is not indiscriminate, but discerning who your people are, and letting those people in. And taking risks big and small. So that you can be doing the things you want to be doing and feeling comfortable with your life and feeling challenged as well. 

Q: In a dream world, if you had to envision youth liberation, especially as it pertains to young women and gender expansive folks, what does that look and feel like to you?

A: I wish that schools and institutions that were built for young people did a better job of teaching people things like how to have healthy conflict, and how to take accountability and how to be kinder to yourself. And put more value on those things than on things like math and English and things like that. And took less of a focus on creating people that associate their worth and their success with grades and how well they’re performing in these different areas, but not doing anything to teach them about things that are actually helpful in the world, that can make them better community members who are able to learn how to connect with their true selves earlier. I feel like a lot of — at least this has been my experience — I’ve noticed that for a lot of people who are within their 20s, it’s a lot of unlearning of things that they have learned up until that point of their life. And like, if that process of learning happens differently from when people are toddlers to when they’re 18 years old, I think people in their 20s would be so much different, and have so much more space to be able to be actually engaging in the things they want to be engaging in and not feeling so doubtful about themselves, and having internalized all these other things that are not useful.

So yeah, I think in a dream world, schools would just look absolutely different than they do right now to me, and maybe schools wouldn’t exist, and it would look like a different kind of learning. But I also think that young people would be more integrated into community and less separated. Because I feel like I never interact with young people. Except for when I’m doing stuff with Y-WE and that’s because they’re so segregated from people that don’t have children themselves. And I feel like in a dream world, that wouldn’t be the case. Even if you didn’t have your own biological children, you would still be a part of the young people in your communities lives in one way or the other. 

Q: I’m thinking about how you said, “I thought working with young people in this capacity would be so much different than working with adults.” When I was doing the search for therapists, many of them said they don’t work with youth. It seemed like there’s an anxiety around working with youth. What do you think that’s about? 

A: Yeah, I think there’s a part of it that’s probably about an anxiety around mandatory reporting, and how that is something that’s more prevalent when it comes to working with youth. And that health care practitioners, in general, just have a complicated relationship with it. It’s not neutral.

Q: Can you say more about mandated reporting?

A: What I mean by “it’s not neutral” is that calling Child Protective Services, and calling the police is, most of the time, not a helpful solution for people that are in situations of abuse and harm, and that there aren’t really good alternatives to that, currently, and I think it puts healthcare providers in a really uncomfortable position, where they have to act as these mediators between cops and Child Protective Services. And that can really rupture therapeutic relationships. It’s not something that I’ve had to do before. But I know that that is something that can happen. And it also creates an environment where, you know, clients are not comfortable enough to share, and don’t want to share certain things and maybe shouldn’t share certain things. They don’t want a report to be made. And then it doesn’t allow for real support to be provided to those people. Because they don’t want to share certain things because they don’t want a mandatory report to be made. Yeah, it’s just messy and I don’t think it’s actually helpful in most cases. I’m sure, in some cases, that it is helpful, but I think especially when it comes to family, it’s definitely more harmful than anything else. And you know, thinking about how things are politically right now, I think, in states where gender affirming care is being criminalized, it’s now becoming the thing where if a parent is supporting their child’s gender identity, then that is something that you’re supposed to report as abuse. So it just gets really complicated. And I just feel like it’s a tool of oppression that I don’t I don’t agree with but I am in the position that I’m in so, yes, many both ands.

Q: If you could talk to your teenage self, what’s something you think they really needed to hear?

A: Find people in your life that you don’t have to act a certain way around to be accepted. And that you’re not weird and strange, and maybe you are weird and strange, but it’s okay that you’re weird or strange. It’s a strength. It’s not something for you to change. And that the things that feel like they matter a lot right now are really not going to matter at all later on, and you don’t have to put so much weight onto them. 

Y-WE’s mission is to cultivate the power of diverse young women to be creative leaders and courageous changemakers, through transformative programs within a collaborative community of belonging. Learn more about the Healing Justice Collective and how you can support this work.

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