Substack Podcast #019: Mental Health with Fiza Pirani

  
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We spoke with Fiza Pirani of Foreign Bodies, a newsletter that destigmatizes mental illness, centered on immigrant and refugee experiences. Fiza’s created a community of people who resonate with her vulnerability and mission to give a voice to populations that aren’t typically featured in mainstream media.

Fiza was born in India and lived in Saudi Arabia before moving to America, and she personally struggled with depression and a lack of belonging. As a journalist, she felt compelled to write for an audience who might share similar feelings. Fiza curates essays and the latest news coverage on the immigrant experience and mental health. She also shares personal stories and photos, expert interviews and research, and community resources and shoutouts. 

We talked to Fiza about her personal experiences with mental health, why her writing appeals to a wider audience beyond immigrants and refugees, and how she builds trust with her readers by being vulnerable.

Links

Highlights

  • (02:29) Why Fiza left her traditional newsroom job to start telling immigrant stories

  • (14:39) The meaning behind the name of Fiza’s newsletter, Foreign Bodies 

  • (19:57) Why mental health is particularly challenging for those who don’t feel like they belong

  • (38:34) How Fiza launched Foreign Bodies through a reporting fellowship 

  • (42:13) Common challenges that mental health journalists face 

On talking about stigmatized issues:

There are discussions that I feel like I haven't really been able to have growing up—maybe they've been stigmatized—about mental illness, about identity, so that connection is definitely very intimate for me. 

On publicly sharing her personal story: 

I felt like I had a story that needed to be told, and I think almost everyone has a story that they feel needs to be told. And it really was just about being okay with publicizing that and letting your vulnerabilities be on the screen or on paper or wherever you want to pitch your story.

On feeling a lack of belonging: 

The only word that I've really been able to associate my identity with is the fact that I've always felt foreign.

Transcript

Nadia (00:42):

We'll get into Foreign Bodies itself in a bit, but I'd love to start by just having you talk about: how did you arrive here from a personal standpoint, why is this topic important to you?

Fiza (00:53):

Oh, man. Let's see.

Fiza (00:58):

Well, I, myself, am an immigrant, so I definitely ... There are discussions that I feel like I haven't really been able to have growing up, maybe they've been stigmatized, about mental illness, about identity, so definitely that connection is definitely very intimate for me. I was a journalist, or I am a journalist, but I was with the newsroom for about four and a half years.

Fiza (01:30):

And I always knew that writing was in my blood. My mom is a storyteller, my daddy, my grandma is a big storyteller, will remember everything about everything. And I definitely feel like once I got into the industry, I noticed there was a huge focus on audience and catering to an audience, your audience are subscribers, the people that have been loyal to you.

Fiza (02:03):

And what I quickly noticed was there wasn't so much of an emphasis of that immigrant audience, which makes up such a huge portion of the American population. And the more I researched, the more I realized that there really are very few publications, at least in mainstream media, few focuses on the immigrant experience at all.

Fiza (02:29):

And I remember when I was in the newsroom, I left almost a year ago-ish. I left because I was getting burnt out, like completely. And one of the things that was burning me out was not being able to feel like the people from my background, my fellow immigrants, they weren't really being heard by mainstream media, which I was a part of, but I felt kind of helpless.

Fiza (03:03):

And all that after 2016 kind of started weighing pretty heavily on me. You had the travel ban, you had the women's march, you had so many social issues kind of like building up. And not really feeling like you have much of a voice when you're a part of the free press in America, kind of added to the burnout that I was already feeling as someone who lives with depression.

Fiza (03:34):

And for me, I felt like the only way to combat all of it was to have some kind of departure, and I don't know, figure out how to do something on my own, and that's how I ended up saying goodbye to that full-time journalism position and figuring out what to do next and how to incorporate the immigrant audiences across the country and helping them have their voices heard.

Nadia (04:09):

That's really beautiful, I love hearing that. It's interesting, I'm also a child of two immigrants and I feel like I often connect with people across a lot of different cultures from this immigrant experience of either having come here when they were young or being born to parents who came here.

Nadia (04:33):

And it is actually a very pervasive experience throughout the US, and I also think the immigrant experience in the US is particularly unique in that I just feel like there's nowhere else that gives you a shot at being American in the way that we extend to foreigners.

Nadia (04:54):

And so part of me is like, it's so cool that I feel totally 100% American and almost even more American, because I have immigrant parents, it's like it is the quintessential American story. And then in other ways it's almost like you get so assimilated that way that people sometimes forget that you're not just like them or you have this different background.

Fiza (05:18):

Yeah, and what's interesting is like what you were saying earlier, the experience is so pervasive that even if you're a first generation or a new immigrant, there are some things that somehow we're all kind of dealing with, or it's a foreshadowing of what we will deal with, like the future generations.

Fiza (05:37):

If you're a new immigrant, what you're experiencing, nearly full assimilation, is like what they can expect their great grandchildren or their grandchildren or their children experience. And so there hasn't been a significant amount of research on how we cope with the differences across generations, but as you said, it's so pervasive.

Fiza (06:02):

Like we know what to expect if you've been here for a long time, which I find really interesting. Each new immigrant generation still struggles with the same issues despite us kind of having a blueprint of how it's been.

Fiza (06:22):

And what you mentioned about how America is like so, I guess I won't say welcoming to immigrants, but we do encourage foreigners to assimilate in a way that makes everyone comfortable, but then nowadays you question: who is it really making comfortable?

Fiza (06:49):

And so, yeah, I mean, that's what I thought of when you mentioned how assimilated you feel right now. Because at least for me growing up, like I was born in India and I left for Saudi Arabia when I was not even a year old. And before coming to America, I spent like four or five years in Saudi Arabia, so that's where I learned English for the first time, and I attended an American school there. And when I came here, I just couldn't ...

Fiza (07:25):

Like just growing up, I struggled to find my footing here. I felt like I was so disconnected from Indian culture. I didn't even spend like a month there or more than a few months in India before I left. I definitely didn't feel connected to Saudi Arabian culture. We left because we didn't have religious freedom there.

Fiza (07:54):

And then when I was in America, we traveled all over the place to help my parents figure out their career and become physicians again like they were back in India and in Saudi Arabia. And so I just feel like I never ... I think from the outside looking in, it definitely looks like I fully assimilated. My English is very, I guess, American or however you would want to call it, but I wouldn't ever say that I feel like I found a home here, which sounds so strange.

Fiza (08:32):

I mean, I've been here since I was like five, but I just, I don't know what it is. I don't think I was ever really comfortable saying that I fully assimilated maybe because I haven't really adhered to one culture over the other or haven't been able to figure that out, I'm still figuring it out.

Nadia (08:50):

Do you feel like there's a different place that is your home or you're just sort of living between lots of different realities?

Fiza (08:57):

I definitely feel like I'm living between lots of different realities. Atlanta has been our location, like our home base for quite a long time, and so I've grown to really love Atlanta as a city and the people here, but I talk about this with my therapist. Obviously I talk about mental illness a lot and so probably will mention to my therapist every now and then.

Fiza (09:25):

But I talk about something that has always kind of been the root of my issue with belonging and depression is not really feeling the borders made much sense to me. I never felt American...the soil of wherever I was standing didn't really connect to my identity. And so when I was going through depression, that was like a huge thing, I just felt like I didn't belong anywhere.

Fiza (09:54):

And one of the best things that I got out of my first stint in therapy, I think around 2017, was falling in love with nature, as cliche as it sounds. But I learned to feel more connected to the earth as a whole and not so much think about the boundaries that we've created or like civilizations created as long as we can remember, and that's really helped me find some grounding.

Nadia (10:28):

Hmm, I really love that. Because as you were talking, I was thinking about where are the ways in which I feel like I belong, and I think I've sort of clung to this American idea or America as an ideal that anyone can belong to for similar reasons maybe, to the way that you're describing your relationship to nature where ... I guess for me it feels like I can belong here because I really believe that anyone can belong here, in a different sort of way.

Nadia (10:58):

I mean, I was lucky to still be born and grow up in the same country, but I had and continue to have these fractured relationships with different cultures in that both my parents are also bicultural. My dad is Persian, but he grew up in Germany basically his whole life, and my mom is Indonesian, but she's ethnically Chinese Indonesian.

Nadia (11:21):

I've never really been able to belong to any one of their cultures, and then they themselves are like fractured versions of their own cultures, and then somehow we all ended up here. And so it is definitely this strange experience of, especially when you're growing up in ... I don't know what your neighborhood was like growing up, but for me I grew up in suburban Pennsylvania was just like you're like the one that's not, the only one that's not-

Fiza (11:49):

Oh yeah, that was-

Nadia (11:50):

... that's like everyone else with a suburban background.

Fiza (11:52):

That was pretty much my entire life. I think I went to like, I want to say 11 or 12 different schools before I graduated high school. And I mean, we moved based on rankings. So once we were in Georgia. I mean ... And even when I first came to America, we were in Houston and then we were in New York, and both times the schools I went to were predominantly white.

Fiza (12:16):

And then I came to Georgia, and I mean, it was really, really predominantly white, every school I went to. And I mean, my parents would literally pick us up and move districts if the school rankings changed. It's only recently that we've had discussions about redlining, and what it all means and how we were kind of complicit, but then it's like you're chasing whatever you think is best.

Fiza (12:47):

But yeah, I mean, I definitely know that feeling of like forever being the odd one out. And it's funny I went through my entire, I think like 18 years, it wasn't until college, I went to college in Atlanta here and it wasn't until college that I told people to call me Fiza, my real name.

Fiza (13:10):

I went by Fiza for like 18 years, and it's weird. I used to make my family call me Fiza, and I guess I thought that was cooler. I feel like I had a lot of learning and unlearning to do once I got older, and was able to recognize all the different ways that I kind of assimilated in a way that wasn't really healthy.

Nadia (13:41):

I'm really glad I asked how to pronounce your name last minute before I started. I remember there's another guest, Nikhil, who tweeted something similar, this is like, "It's so strange that everyone else pronounces my name Nickel, but there's no reason that everyone should assume it's like this long i, because it's actually Nikhil. My dad as he was growing up, his name's Reza and for some reason, R-E-Z-A, but people always think it's Riza, and then he was just like, "Why? There's a reason why it should be Reza, it's obviously Reza."

Fiza (14:11):

Yeah, I always thought it was Riza-

Nadia (14:12):

Riza.

Fiza (14:12):

Because I guess I have one friend named Riza.

Nadia (14:18):

Who might actually be named Reza if you ask.

Fiza (14:20):

Yeah, I should probably ask him.

Nadia (14:24):

Oh gosh. Yeah. Could you actually talk a little bit about the meaning behind the name Foreign Bodies? Because I found the explanation that you give on your site to just be so marvelous and touches on this aspect of leaning into our differences and just learning to embrace and be proud of them.

Fiza (14:39):

I can't tell you exactly like how, why I first came up with Foreign Bodies, but the more I kind of sat with it ... The term alien has always been kind of irritating. I mean, I didn't become a citizen until I was in my early twenties, even though we applied like for over a decade, it just took a really long time.

Fiza (15:10):

And so I remember the term alien always attached to my citizenship. And I mean, I went from a kind of alien to thinking about being called a foreigner and how offensive I always thought of it, but then when I spoke to my brother who was actually born in America, in Houston, he never thought of it as offensive, and so it just made me think about the words that we use and how.

Fiza (15:41):

I wanted something that made you question like, "Is it okay to just call yourself a foreign body?" Why would you call yourself, give yourself the word that people might use to instigate and might use against you? And I wanted to embrace that because the only word that I've really been able to associate with, like my identity with, is the fact that I've always felt foreign, no matter where, like no matter if I was like ...

Fiza (16:13):

I'm sure I haven't even been back to India since I was born, but I know that once I go back I am not going to feel very at home because of all the stories that I've heard with my friends who have been, so and so are so-called like Westernized or Americanized going back home and feeling a little bit out of place.

Fiza (16:35):

I know I've always felt foreign, in every classroom I've felt foreign, even at mosque because people called me ... They said I had a Valley girl voice so I was like the white, brown girl or like whatever, all these different words. And so I definitely just connected with that word.

Fiza (16:56):

And the more I talk to people about what they felt about it, I notice that some people thought it was a little bit more ...  they felt that it was a little bit more offensive, and I wanted to make sure in my FAQs or in my about section to address what exactly a foreign body is.

Fiza (17:26):

I mean, it's just something that is part of something that's been introduced from the outside, so it wasn't there from the origin. And it's like something that's new to a place and it's not normal to the place where it's found. And so I realized that that doesn't have to be an immigrant, that could be you moving to a new school district and being the only brown person there, it could be you being a black woman in a white dominant field.

Fiza (18:02):

It could be so many different things, and I think that's what's really cool about Foreign Bodies is like we might center immigrant experiences the way like mainstream media centers non-immigrant experiences in their main story, but at the root of it is like something that anyone who can identify with being somewhere that they're not expected to be or they haven't been born into can relate to.

Fiza (18:29):

So talking about pill shaming. In Asian American communities, if you're from the South and you're new to the field of psychology and your parents aren't really open to medication, that relates to you. It's not really about being an immigrant or not, and I think I wanted to emphasize that because there's a lot to offer in Foreign Bodies that's not specific to one type of experience.

Nadia (19:00):

Hmm. Yeah, I really appreciate that clarification. It's true. I mean, what I have found uniting about just the immigrant label is that it reaches a lot of people that just have an experience of being other or out of place or out of water, and then extending that as you're saying beyond even just being an immigrant in the national sense, but just sort of like you're feeling something that is not necessarily shared by your environment, which seems to really be at the heart of a lot of mental health issues and their origin, right, because you're sort of like, "Why do I not fit into this thing?"

Fiza (19:41):

Exactly.

Nadia (19:43):

Why do you think this topic of mental health is so tough for people with a sort of, "I don't fit in here," background in a way that does seem to transcend any specific culture or label or identity?

Fiza (19:57):

Hmm. I don't know that there's one big answer there. I think like you're a product of your surroundings or the education that you've been exposed to, the education you've had access to, and the culture that you were born into. And I mean, that has nothing to do with you being from one region of the country or the other, I mean it's really just because the stigma of mental health is so pervasive across different cultures and across different regions that I think it feels like such a universal fight, it doesn't feel like specific to one demographic.

Fiza (20:45):

And I think it just speaks to the way we've historically reported on mental health in media, how we've historically addressed mental health in research, in psychology, in the academics. And so I don't know that there is one specific problem, I think that's something that ... I mean, you see the numbers, like how many people are, if they were to be diagnosed with depression, like it's a huge majority of the population.

Fiza (21:18):

So it's clearly something that if we were more attuned to, if we had more access and education and awareness about, we would probably be like, "Oh yeah, that is me. Like, of course that's me," but usually we don't. Like, a lifetime kind of passes you by and you think you have other priorities, and so I don't know, it just, it never felt specific to a culture at all.

Nadia (21:44):

It feels like one place where I was just thinking it overlaps is, if you're sort of dealing with something personally you kind of hit this, you get a sort of survivor drive that kicks in where you're just sort of like, "Whatever, I'm going to power through. It's fine, I'm not even going to think about it," which of course leads to issues later down the line.

Nadia (22:07):

And I think maybe similarly with a lot of people that identify with Foreign Bodies, the label of like, I am somewhere where everyone is different. If you're an immigrant, refugee or any other sort of situation, and you're, again, just sort of like, "I'm just trying to figure it out, and I just want to make it work," and so it's easier to push aside some of these things that you're dealing with and just ignore what's going on.

Fiza (22:37):

Yeah, especially if you're that one person who's not like the others. It's almost like you have this additional pressure to overperform or outperform your neighbors and your classmates and your coworkers because you are different. And I'm not sure exactly like ... I don't know why that's universal, but it's definitely specific to some groups.

Fiza (23:04):

If you're an immigrant or a child of immigrants who tremendously suffered to get here just to make a house here, and you're privileged to be in a position where you get to do some amazing work, there's a survivor's guilt that comes in and you feel like you're not allowed to really complain if like you don't have it as bad on paper as your parents did.

Fiza (23:36):

And then it's something similar with the black experience, too. I'm sure that I've heard other black women talk about is they have that sense of survivor's guilt, too. They don't have it as worse as their descendants did, and so sometimes they feel a guilt to put all that pain aside and work through it.

Fiza (24:01):

And I don't know. I mean, you see it kind of everywhere, but we still live in a highly productive, focused society which seems to value that more, especially in corporate environments. And so if you're someone who is not like most of your surroundings, it's like an implicit pressure that you put on yourself and sometimes other people put on you too. I don't know. I mean, I'm not sure why that is, I just know that it exists.

Nadia (24:39):

The comment of just like highly productive, work-focused, output-focused society also strikes me as something that is particularly felt in the US, I think. And at the same time, it seems like we do place a comparatively higher value on therapy culture. It seems like therapists are just a more common thing to have in the US versus elsewhere. I'm actually not sure if that's true, so correct me if I'm wrong, but is that true?

Fiza (25:16):

I actually have no idea. I don't know if that's true, but you definitely feel like it is, like you feel like people are always talking about it.

Nadia (25:28):

Yeah.

Fiza (25:28):

Yeah. And like the self care and wellness industry definitely seems very American.

Nadia (25:36):

Yeah, it's weird. It feels like it almost goes hand in hand with the intensity of the circumstances that we're placing ourselves, and now we have this like other component or this byproduct of that sort of culture that is now all about the mental health.

Fiza (25:50):

Yeah. And it's funny, and so I think Americans are ... Okay. I don't want to blanket all of America or anything, but it feels like we're always looking for a bandaid and not really going back to why it is, why things are the way they are, and what we can do at the root to fix it. I mean, we use self care like face masks, not like the ones for like the pandemic, but like face mask for relaxation.

Nadia (26:20):

The nice ones.

Fiza (26:23):

The nice ones. And going to therapy, which is definitely very inaccessible to most of the population, and we use those as those fixes. And it's funny that you mentioned that because I feel like that's also similar in some immigrant households too. Like, my parents are both physicians, and when I first talked to them about ...

Fiza (26:51):

At one point I was having suicidal thoughts, this was like 2016, 2017, and when I came to them with that, their immediate reaction was to find a quick fix, "So go to mosque and pray more," or like, "Let's put you on medication." And that was big.

Fiza (27:19):

The medication thing is definitely not something every immigrant parent is open to, but I think because they're in medicine maybe they're a little bit more attuned to it, but still there was no thinking about, "Okay, why do you think ... Why are you at this point? Like, what kind of led here?" There's obviously brain chemistry that's involved in depression, but there's a lot of societal factors that also make things worse for everyone.

Fiza (27:48):

And so there was no real discussion about why am I feeling so burned out, why am I not able to get out of bed, like why am I not looking forward to a workday even though I've said I love my job, and all of that. And I think we're just really quick to find a solution that looks pretty and looks .... that seems socially acceptable without doing more of the dirty work and trying to figure out, "Okay, but why aren't we talking about this in the workplace this much?"

Fiza (28:25):

And that always bothered me. As much as I love, I appreciate the wonderful effects of my antidepressants, I definitely feel like there's so much more that I felt needed to be coupled with that, that had less to do with buying new face masks or going to mosque or participating in something that I didn't feel was creating some concrete change in a system bigger than me.

Fiza (29:00):

I remember shortly after I started beginning cognitive behavioral therapy in addition to my antidepressants, which my parents were kind of weird about, like they weren't totally embracing the whole talk therapy thing, but I just knew that it would probably work for me. I had read enough about why you should go to therapy stories online and just felt like it was the right move for me.

Fiza (29:31):

And I remember like pretty soon after starting therapy, I started talking about mental health at work really openly. And I mean, I used to be like, "Okay, I'm going to go hang out with my dog for a while." Like, in the middle of the workday I'll be like, "I just feel really exhausted and I just need a break." And I would say that out loud, and I know like a year before that I would never even dare to say that. Like, it would just be like, "Oh, wow, she's so lazy."

Nadia (30:00):

Makes me concerned about the value of ... I mean, like you said, there isn't a quick fix to these things. And a lot of the things that can be helpful are interrelated with your environment around you, like your workplace and your family and your friends, and so being able to integrate this inner self with your external environment and have that not have this enormous disconnect between the two I think is really valuable.

Fiza (30:30):

And I feel like it needed to be seen in action. Like, you don't just see. Like, if you see me taking ... I'm usually taking my antidepressants before I come to work, so you don't really see me actively taking care of myself really. And I feel like that was really important for me to be pretty vocal about every little thing that I'm doing to take care of myself.

Fiza (30:49):

And once I started doing that, I had coworkers come in and ask me about going to therapy for the first time, and it was like it started a whole discussion in the newsroom, and I mean that's like the kind of change that I feel like needs to be made. It's definitely dirty work and you're definitely airing your dirty laundry out, but I realized that telling your story was really the only way to change minds.

Nadia (31:17):

Yeah, it feels like even just knowing that ... Sometimes I think the things that we're all going through personally in our minds, it's all-consuming because it's happening to you of course, and sometimes it can feel very isolating for that reason, but even just knowing that it happens to other people that you personally know or admire or look up to or work with every day... I mean, learning those things through these narratives and storytelling can just be enormously beneficial.

Fiza (31:46):

Oh yeah, definitely.

Nadia (31:46):

And a lot of people I've talked to also seem to feel like this is centered around this parent-child experience, especially if your parents grew up elsewhere and the kids in the US, and sort of raised with this one lens that is more American and it can be hard to see eye to eye as to what is even the issue or how do these ... Yeah, what am I supposed to do about this. And I think you're alluding to that a little bit with your parents. How do we start seeding these conversations earlier? And do you find that Foreign Bodies appeals to readers that are in this younger demographic?

Fiza (32:21):

I think that's one of the biggest issues that I've noticed at least my readers and my audience have been questioning. Like, I get a lot of emails about, "How do I talk to my mom about this? Like, my mom's not really listening to me. My dad doesn't really like to talk about his emotions, and I don't know how to get through to that."

Fiza (32:43):

And yeah, I definitely feel like my experience is a little bit different. My brother and I have never really been afraid to challenge my parents, and I think that is a huge issue in a lot of immigrant communities, like there's like a fear of letting your parents down... That seems to be very, at least what I've received from just the people that I interact with, like very pervasive and like Asian American communities, like Eastern and South Asian.

Fiza (33:21):

And I guess like, I always say you have to have the really difficult conversations that end in tears, that end in screaming, that may end up in you not talking to your dad for a few days or even like a week. I think that that definitely happened to me growing up. I don't know that any of breaking through to people involves no screaming and no yelling.

Fiza (33:54):

Like, I've never had a conversation with my parents growing up where ... You obviously have that issue of challenging someone who's older than you. And in immigrant communities especially, respecting your elders thing feels like very ... Like, you can't raise your voice at your elders, you can't call them names, it's just not ... I'm not saying that it's common in other cultures, but I know that it's very taboo almost to raise your voice or talk back, like talk down to anyone.

Fiza (34:32):

So what happens is this generational rift between your parents and the children where you feel like you can't really open the floor for a conversation or for a debate because you're afraid of raising your voice, which will inevitably happen probably.

Fiza (34:51):

And so I don't know. I mean, my only advice is to just rip it off and let the tears flow, and let the yells happen, because I don't know how much my parents have changed their mindset about mental health or really about so many different things would have even happened if we hadn't challenged them a lot.

Nadia (35:21):

Well that also just points to the benefit of having communities like Foreign Bodies for people who for whatever reason are unable to do that with their own families, but still being able to find outlets for conversation elsewhere.

Fiza (35:36):

There was a really good story that Meghna Rao, she told in Issue 14 of Foreign Bodies, which her story was about, "I told my parents I was depressed and they didn't really believe me," and how their disbelief or their struggling off of her truth and her experience worsened her depression. And in that issue I talked to a psychologist, Sharon Lo, who is a first generation Taiwanese American, and she offered some tips on how to approach that first conversation if you feel like you're struggling with a mental illness.

Fiza (36:13):

And I mean, there was some really good points. She said one of the things is be mindful of their experience and just think about what they have been, what kind of access they've had, what kind of mental health education access that they've had growing up, and just keep that in mind. And also remember that like any, I really love what she said, any misguided reactions such as yelling or shutting down or crying, they come from a place of fear, and it's important to keep returning to the idea that everything is kind of rooted in love even if those reactions do feel misguided.

Fiza (36:56):

And another really big piece of advice is if you feel like things are getting heightened, it's okay to say, "Okay, let's come back to this another time. I feel like it's just getting a little bit out of hand," and that's okay. You don't have to like, unless you feel like it's an emergency and you need professional help right then and there, like this is a conversation that will take a lot of time and it will take you coming back and returning to the painful conversations, it doesn't have to be like you have one conversation and everything is over, that's not how growth works, it's a slow process.

Fiza (37:33):

And so I definitely feel like that issue in particular, I got a lot of feedback from people who use a lot of the tips that Sharon provided and that the Stanford Mental Health Innovation Network provided, I reached out to them for some tips too. And I really liked a lot of the advice that they gave, and so if anyone out there is wondering how exactly to have that talk with their parents, or if you are a mom or a dad, like a parent or a guardian who wants to talk to their children about mental health, but you don't know how to start, there's some tips in there about that too. And I mean, again, like the experience that was centered was about migrants, but it touches like everybody.

Nadia (38:14):

I love that you have the perfect resource for this topic, of course. That's great. I'd love to hear just a little bit more and maybe shifting gears into how you ended up launching Foreign Bodies in the first place. It sounded like you had this fellowship with the Carter Center's Mental Health Program, how did that relate to Foreign Bodies and how did that help bring you here?

Fiza (38:34):

So yeah, I was really lucky to become one of their fellows in, I think it was 2018, and this was when I was at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my local paper. And initially the plan was to produce, like publish a few stories for the paper on immigrant mental health. And I think it's clear why I chose that topic, like it was definitely personal, but also with the state of the world at that time.

Fiza (39:03):

We were dealing with the political influences of anti-immigrant discourse and everything, and so that was a topic that definitely spoke to me and that I felt like I hadn't really read much about. And so the plan was, like I said, to just publish a few stories, but as soon as I started interviewing ... I think I interviewed like maybe 60 to 70 different people in or around like the Metro Atlanta area.

Fiza (39:34):

And we're home to Clarkston, which is like a significant refugee population base here in Georgia. And the more I was talking, the more I realized that what I wanted to do or what I felt like I needed to do was create a space where they felt comfortable talking. I knew that if I publish a big story or two in the paper, that would be great, but I don't know that it would reach the immigrant audiences that I'm trying to reach here. And so what happened was I had way too many folders of interviews and research and nowhere to really address them all, and so I knew I needed something that was kind of recurring.

Fiza (40:25):

And I had been into newsletters at the time, it was just like something that felt really intimate, something that you open up like your email and it's like someone's talking to you, and you only ... And it just felt really, it felt like the right kind of format. I knew a lot of older immigrants especially will check their emails pretty often if not WhatsApp or like whatever different apps there are.

Fiza (40:51):

They seem to be more drawn to things like that over reading a newspaper article, and I knew that newsletters made a lot more sense. And so I mean, when I first started off, it was kind of my way of just seeing how it would work and experimenting. I mean, that's like anyone who's in media will tell you, like once they start something it's just kind of like a game to see who's reacting to what.

Fiza (41:21):

And I noticed that the more I continued writing for Foreign Bodies, there was just way more to address. And as soon as people ... Word of mouth kind of spread. I was noticing a lot of young immigrants, a lot of parents were drawn to the subject too, because where else do you really turn for that? So yeah, I don't know if I really answered that very well.

Nadia (41:48):

Yeah, that was great. Why do you think it's important to have kickoff support, like the fellowship that you had, to offer extra support to journalists that are focused on mental health? What are the challenges that mental health journalists face in their careers?

Fiza (42:13):

Journalists across the board are incredibly, or newsrooms across the board, are incredibly short staffed. There's no way that ... It's very rare to have a journalist be able to focus on mental health journalism alone, and so I definitely feel like it's kind of a project that you might work on like once a year, or you might do a few stories on like every other month or something, but it's not ... Newsrooms are just too short staffed. Like, there's just no way.

Fiza (42:48):

I can imagine, even when I had the fellowship when I was at the AJC, I did most of my work for the fellowship outside of the newsroom. And so it was like basically working two jobs, it just wasn't really feasible to do any of that inside the newsroom, at least in my experience.

Fiza (43:08):

I know there are people who do have that privilege and they're really lucky, but I did not have that. And I knew that the only way that I could really justify doing all this research, doing all those interviews, writing and all of that, was to have that fellowship. I mean, I wouldn't really be able to sustain really anything without that kind of, honestly, like financial support and the mentorship that came with the program. And yeah, I mean, it's tough to be a journalist when you're specifically passionate about one thing because you're pulled in tons of different directions when you're working in a newsroom nowadays.

Nadia (43:52):

Right. I guess it's hard to imagine having ... I'm sure it's extraordinarily rare to have a regular beat that is just focused on mental health, it seems a little bit more investigative or research-oriented in nature.

Fiza (44:03):

Definitely. Yeah. And I mean, the truth of the matter is, yeah, it's like the investigative work that you see concrete results for, but how ... It's hard to justify from an editorial management standpoint, it comes down to how many people are clicking on it, how many people are reading it.

Fiza (44:23):

And so it's when you have an audience that's not primarily about immigrants or not primarily immigrants, they're not primarily mental health professionals or people interested in mental health, they're not going to be automatically drawn to stories about mental health. And that doesn't mean that stories like that shouldn't exist in the paper of course, they should because this conversation needs to be ignited, but it's hard to find a home for it.

Nadia (44:55):

You did have this piece with Teen Vogue that came out last year. For a lot of writers, I'm sure they would just dream about getting that kind of an op-ed placement. How does one go about getting an op-ed in something like Teen Vogue, and what was the response like? Did that help kick off some of your work with Foreign Bodies?

Fiza (45:14):

So pretty interesting. Like, the day that that came out I think was the day after I quit my job. It was the last day of my job or something. And I remember I almost felt like it was too early, like I felt like, "Oh God, like now that I quit and I had this published, are people going to expect me to do more?" and I was like, "No, this is just like months in the making."

Fiza (45:45):

Honestly, I felt like I had a story that needed to be told, and I think almost everyone has a story that they feel needs to be told. And it really was just about being okay with publicizing that and letting your vulnerabilities be on the screen or on paper or wherever you want to pitch your story.

Fiza (46:11):

And by that point, I will say that I was ready for that. By that point, I had made that decision to leave my job because I didn't feel like it was helping my health. By that point, I had made the decision to go to therapy, start medication and everything, and I did feel comfortable enough. And I'm not saying that you have to be a certain comfort level to expose yourself like that, but I think it's important that once you do publish something that's so personal that you're ready for maybe like a little bit of backlash.

Fiza (46:53):

And I kept reminding myself like, "Okay, not everyone's going to respond well to a story like this," and that's not really what happened. Like, after that I definitely feel like it helped Foreign Bodies because it helped people who are in my circle or my network see that like maybe, okay, I actually have experienced some of the stuff that maybe they've experienced, and maybe hopefully felt like they could trust me a little bit more.

Fiza (47:29):

I think building trust was like a huge thing. I mean, I didn't want to preach to anybody. Like, I'm not a professional mental health clinician or anything, but I definitely felt like I wanted to kind of showcase the fact that I'm putting my vulnerabilities out there and I find power in that, and I think that should be something or I hope that that's something that when you read my story that you feel something in you that makes you want to grab a pen and start writing.

Fiza (48:01):

And I mean, any advice about like how to get published, honestly, just email the editors. There's not too much to it. I think there's going to be a lot of rejection of course, when you email editors and you have something that you want to write about, but that's part of the learning process. I mean, if you have a story to tell, just make sure it's told no matter where ...

Fiza (48:34):

I don't get too caught up in exactly where everything is published. I think Teen Vogue is a really great outlet for young people, and I know Foreign Bodies reaches a lot of really young people, like people in middle and high school and in college. And it felt like the audience for the story that I needed to tell because my story had so much to do with the way that I grew up and my relationship with my parents, and so it felt like the right outlet.

Fiza (49:07):

But I don't recommend anyone chase any specific names in media or anything, I think if you have a story find a way to have it told. Like if it's writing on a blog or writing for Foreign Bodies or writing for Teen Vogue, it doesn't really matter, I think the most important thing is to like when you read a story like that, that it sparks something within you to want to tell your own.

Nadia (49:34):

Does Foreign Bodies benefit from word of mouth spreading in the way that other types of writing might because it is such a private activity? Like, is this something that people are excited to share and talk about in public or does it feel more like, "Oh, I'm reading this privately because I'm having some sort of issue"?

Fiza (49:53):

Hmm, that's a good question. I will say the people who are probably really vocal about reading or being a subscriber to Foreign Bodies are the people who do feel a little bit more, maybe they've already felt like they've experienced the worst event, and a lot of them are storytellers too. And I definitely feel like a lot of the young immigrant parents who read the letter, and maybe they're a little more shy in expressing how they feel about it.

Fiza (50:33):

I don't know, but that's a really good question. I wonder about that a lot. I feel like there are people who are really willing to talk, but I know in my reporting experience when I was first reporting with the Carter Center, the hardest thing to do was to get immigrants to talk. And so I always wonder what percentage of them are really still afraid of talking even though you're seeing so many people expose their own stories? But maybe I'm just being optimistic, but maybe each issue kind of inches them towards being more open to it.

Nadia (51:14):

Yeah, and I was thinking just like having, again, I mean you keep coming back to this theme of storytelling, but having a post from someone else or a story from someone else can also help depersonalize it a little bit and make it easier for you to talk about yourself in a more public setting or talking to someone else.

Nadia (51:35):

I was just thinking about this the other day because I shared on my own Twitter this blog post from Laura Deming talking about just her experiences of feeling sad. And I really like the piece especially because it just came from someone that I knew who does not normally seem to talk about any of these topics in public, and I imagine just faces a lot of pressure in being a young successful person.

Nadia (52:03):

And it made me want to share it out, and then I sort of just inserted a little bit of myself in that when I shared it, but that was a new experience for me. But I don't think I would normally have shared anything about myself personally, but it was easier to be like, "Oh, this person wrote about it and I totally resonate with this."

Fiza (52:21):

Yeah. I mean, it's the active kind of retweeting something, right? Like, if it's not necessarily something that you would feel comfortable expressing, but in a way you kind of ... Unless you have it in your Twitter byline you feel like your retweets don't include endorsements or anything, but usually the act of retweeting a quote, tweeting or resharing a story on any medium kind of implies that you have some kind of connection to it, which is already brave in and of itself.