Black Mental Health Matters.
The past month has been triggering for many survivors of sexual abuse in light of the recent allegations of sexual assault and misconduct committed by film producer and former co-chairman of the Weinstein Company, Harvey Weinstein, and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, among others. These exposés have underscored the prevalence of sexual violence and the utter lack of resources devoted to survivors. According to reports from the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience sexual abuse before turning eighteen years old. Approximately 1 in 5 black women have experienced rape at some point in their lives. Psychotherapist Chamin Ajjan, MS, Licensed Clinical Social Worker estimates that the actual rate is much higher due to sex crimes being the most underreported delinquent acts committed in the United States. It is more obvious than ever that there is an absence of Black mental health professionals who can understand the experiences and vulnerability of black victims in addition to providing quality clinical care.
Chamin Ajjan has devoted her career to clinically treating mental health issues and leading others on a journey of wellness. As a teenager, the Los Angeles native felt called to the helping professions and knew she wanted to serve in an impactful way. She also knew that one day she would live in New York City. As she researched careers in mental health, she was surprised to learn that majority of mental health clinicians in New York are licensed, clinical social workers. Like psychologists, licensed clinical social workers are able to perform psychotherapy, however’, their training focuses not only on individual wellness but the sociopolitical and environmental factors that influence a person’s mental state. Social workers, in general, are holistic, familiar with social services in the area that can benefit their clients, and are professionally committed to ensuring social justice. These features make them ideal clinicians for the underserved and underrepresented.
After earning her Master’s in Social Work from the Columbia University School of Social Work and earning a professional license, Ajjan began practicing psychotherapy in New York as a counselor-advocate for a local labor union. What she realized during these early sessions startled her. “My caseload was about six women at the time, and half of them were survivors of childhood sexual trauma,” says Ajjan. Realizing that there was a great need for clinicians who cater to trauma survivors, the therapist created a collective for femme survivors of childhood sexual violence. Melissa’s Group, which was named in honor of a former client, is still active today.
In 2004, the therapist began cultivating a small roster of clients for private practice while working at the labor union. Seven years later, Ajjan’s husband expressed a desire to pursue a career in music. Although she had primarily viewed private practice as an avenue for supplemental income, Ajjan realized that becoming a business owner and opening a boutique practice would allow her to provide for her family, give her a bigger opportunity to cater to the needs of the community, and puruse her budding clinical interest. A young, black psychotherapist, Ajjan naturally attracted clients from varied backgrounds who confided their successes and frustrations with sex and relationships. As a result, sexology, the study of human life and relationships, piqued her interest and she began studying it deeply on her own. By building her own practice, Ajjan would have the space to carve an important niche in her industry.
“They did not teach sexology or sex therapy in graduate school, which is crazy,” says Ajjan. “Sex touches every aspect of life. If someone comes to me and they are depressed, of course their depression is going to affect their relationship, their sex life.”
Building a Mindful Practice
In 2011, Chamin Ajjan transitioned from part-time private practitioner to incorporated business owner. This was no small feat for a black woman who is the first in her family to acquire bachelor’s and master’s degrees and had very little exposure to entrepreneurship in her formative years. As her husband transitioned from a traditional job to a more fulfilling but unpredictable industry, Ajjan felt the pressure to market herself and grow quickly. With two children and limited capital for a startup, Ajjan leveraged her network as a resource to find affordable office space in Manhattan and slowly expanded her hours.
“One of the most important things to be in any business, or any relationship, is generous. I was lucky that people were really generous and gave information [when I asked]. … Ask people ‘What’s your story? How did you get here? Do you have any advice for me? How did you start?’” encourages Ajjan.
The cornerstones of Chamin Ajjan Psychotherapy are clinical sex therapy and the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness, a concept and practice stemming from Buddhist philosophy, emphasizes actively growing an acceptance of the present moment. Mindful meditation clinician Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
As Ajjan worked with single clients who were frustrated with their love lives, she recalled the mindful practices that had been such a vital part of her upbringing in Southern California. Ajjan realized that many of her single clients could benefit from cultivating an awareness of the present instead of reacting subconsciously to events from their past and burdening their romantic interactions with projections of the future. Additionally, she noticed that coupled clients who implemented mindful techniques like meditation in their daily lives achieved greater intimacy, experienced more pleasurable sex, and deeper feelings of connectedness with their partners.
After hosting a successful mindful dating workshop in her private practice, the sex therapist began threading this concept into her sessions and blogging about how mindfulness can improve dating on her website. Ajjan’s blogs caught the attention of Bay-area editor Jennifer Kamenetz, who encouraged her to pitch a proposal to a publishing company. Thus, her book “Seeking Soulmate” was born.
Seeking Soulmates Mindfully
In Ajjan’s recently published book “Seeking Soulmate: Ditch Dating Distress and Find Real Connection,” she expands upon the concept of mindful dating, which is a practice of being present of mind during the dating process. For those with a history of trauma, dating can trigger unwanted memories and emotions — but these emotions do not have to hijack the date, or sabotage a relationship. Licensed mental health professionals are trained to guide people through difficult emotions and foster a safe space for others to unpack their trauma and lessen its negative and subconscious impact on their daily lives. Chamin Ajjan employs mindful practices to help aid her clients in this process. When successful, one learns to accept the occasional feelings that may surface due to past trauma and consciously choose how they want to respond in the present moment.
“Dating in the moment means being present in your mind, body, and spirit while you are out with someone. When we have had difficult past experiences it can be a challenge to stay in the moment. But it is not necessary for us to have had a past trauma to find ourselves on automatic pilot on a date,” writes Ajjan.
“Seeking Soulmate” is a manifestation of Ajjan’s experiences as a psychotherapist and single woman-turned-married-partner of 17 years. The inclusive narratives reflect her commitment to social justice and creates space for diverse dating narratives, including those of LGBTQIA orientation, those dating with trauma, and Black daters.
As a Black woman with a multiethnic background, Ajjan is familiar with many of the narratives about dating within the Black community that shape our expectations for our love lives and personal dating practices. One such mentality, that there are not a lot of available Black men, is so pervasive that she has coined it “stocking up.”
“The idea that there are not enough Black men to go around creates a sense of panic. So if you find a man who is somewhat decent, this mindset makes you hold onto him even if he is not right for you,” said Ajjan.
This concept is harmful to Black daters because it bases mate selection off the expectation of scarcity. Black women, cisgender and transgender, are often socialized to settle for men who do not fulfill their needs because what they deserve in a relationship is overshadowed by what they believe is available. Black women and femmes may feel the need to compete for the affection of Black men due to a perceived shortage. Black men may feel that they have their pick and devalue relationships, opting to treat black women and femmes as disposable or interchangeable rather than doing the work to build a quality connection for the long term.
Ajjan finds that there are several barriers to emotional connection that she finds frequently within the Black community. Black men, like most men, are socialized to cultivate a specific kind of masculinity that blocks emotional intimacy. “You can’t be too soft, you have to present yourself in a certain way. … If that’s what you’re leading with, it blocks your authentic self and discourages a genuine connection,” says Ajjan.
Black people, in general, are often taught early on to be strong and to keep many things to ourselves. This can be a significant barrier to connecting with others emotionally and cultivating courageous vulnerability.
In “Seeking Soulmate,” Chamin Ajjan shares straightforward and free techniques that encourage the mind, body and spirit to align the present moment. These “mindful moments” are very effective for those who dissociate due to trauma, and to anyone who might go on ‘autopilot’ during an interaction — whether it is on a date or in a trying situation. One particular mindful moment, which she calls “taking a pause,” was gifted to her by Donald Fleck, a diplomate of clinical social work, the field’s top certification.
“I stop, take a deep breath, and ask myself ‘What am I thinking, what am I feeling, and what is my body doing in this moment?’ This allows me to slow things down, figure out where I am in the present, and decide whether I want to be reactive or choose what I will do next,” says Ajjan.
As her practice grows, Chamin Ajjan is looking forward to acquiring a larger space, and hosting more workshops and support groups like Mindful Dating and Melissa’s Group. Her main goal is to cultivate a larger presence in the community that will allow her to bring caring, compassionate solutions to those who need it most.