American popular culture can make it seem as though everyone is seeing a therapist: the TV Mob boss Tony Soprano describes his panic attacks and anxiety dreams; an abused wife in “Big Little Lies” unpacks the shifting power dynamics in her household and her fantasies; a money-laundering couple in “Ozark” bicker about their sense of security and fear. New Yorker cartoonists have imagined men and women of all sorts (along with toddlers, the Grim Reaper, and a Christmas tree) taking to the psychoanalyst’s couch. In fact, many people who need therapy don’t get it—for reasons of availability, affordability, or other barriers to getting care. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that, in the U.S., one in five adults experiences mental illness every year, but less than half of them receive treatment. A few years ago, when the New York-based filmmaker Wendy Cong Zhao—whose family emigrated from Nanchang, China, to a Massachusetts suburb, when she was eleven—looked into resources for Chinese immigrants, she was surprised by the lack of options. She discovered a handful of monthly group meetings, a social-media outlet offering flimsy psychological advice; she tried calling a city hotline that advertised Mandarin-speaking counsellors, but no one ever seemed to be on duty. A couple of months into this quest, Zhao met Fan Jiang, who worked at a community center in Manhattan’s Chinatown and had been through a related struggle. “My First Sessions,” the short animated documentary above, uses Jiang’s experience as a window into how challenging it can be to overcome cultural stigma, or just personal resistance, when deciding to seek psychological care.
“The undertone of my life has always tilted gloomy. It’s a state of mind,” Jiang told me over the phone. “If something unhappy happens, I tend to wallow in it.” Growing up, in the southern Chinese town of Qingyuan, Jiang always hid any negative emotions—she got used to treating anger and sadness as if they were her dark secrets. “I felt that if I revealed them to anyone, I would no longer be lovable,” she told me. What Jiang thought of as “her dark side” some people call the blues. Zhao had heard others brush off such feelings, in Chinese, as “personality problems” or “temper issues.” Not wanting to be seen as weak or sick, some people go out of their way to fend off the clinical-sounding word “depression.” In 2006, Jiang moved to Oregon for college. Encouraged by a friend and overwhelmed by her chronic unhappiness, Jiang finally went to see a therapist, but she initially resisted opening up to him, perhaps owing to a lingering childhood belief that to show your emotion was to lose, or perhaps because she mistrusted men.
Moving to a new country, as she did, takes a lot of mental adjustment, Jiang said. “When people switch environments, they have to deal with big shocks in terms of their sense of identity and recognition. Especially so when they move abroad—their whole support systems change.” She worries for Chinese students at American universities today; in addition to adjustments to social and classroom expectations, during the they also have to deal with Presidential threats of visa restrictions, heightened racism toward Asians, unpredictable travel bans, and an escalating diplomatic crisis between China and the U.S.
欧洲杯买彩票Jiang’s experience with therapy extends well beyond what we see in the film. After college, she moved to New York City and attended Columbia University, where she got a degree in psychological counselling. She started a service group for international students, as well as working as a counsellor at the community center, in Chinatown. Jiang told me that, when she was little, she had been fascinated by the idea of psychology. An only child, she had sometimes felt that she had a hard time with interpersonal relationships. “I reckoned that psychologists were able to read people’s hearts,” she said. “I wanted to obtain such skills to make everyone like me.” Now, back in Shenzhen, she runs a peer and mentorship program with a mental-health focus, helping teen-agers develop their sense of self.
欧洲杯买彩票In animating Jiang’s experience, Zhao had the challenge of representing visceral feelings visually: in one scene, when Jiang is deep in a bout of anxiety, a cartoon version of her transforms into a buzzing circular blob. Zhao used to draw ambiguous, malleable, often faceless bodies, which seem to be melting, if not drowning, in figures connected to them—perhaps her way of representing the process of having one’s sense of self eclipsed by concern over image. (Worrying about other people’s opinions is such a fruitless pursuit, but I have yet to meet anyone who is truly free of such concerns.) “I’m very introverted,” Zhao told me. “A lot of my art kind of naturally becomes about that internal journey.” In her current work, she is exploring mixing animation, live action, and other art forms in nonfiction storytelling.
欧洲杯买彩票After the initial therapy sessions she describes in the film, Jiang ended up seeing more than half a dozen therapists before she found someone she really liked, whom she has been seeing for more than six years. “I’m not saying therapy is the best way to go, especially for Chinese people,” Zhao said—perhaps, as with Jiang’s work, mental-health support can take many forms—“but it is certainly one option. A very valid option. I just hope for more conversation and for people not to reject it right away.”