Overcoming trauma is incredibly challenging in itself. Overcoming trauma and then making your life about dealing with it, is even harder. Psychotherapist Noah Mugenyi did just that! Read on to learn about his journey from trauma victim to trauma therapist, and the importance of open communication in dealing with mental health.
This past week I had the privilege of sitting down with Toronto, Canada-based counselor and psychotherapist, Noah Mugenyi. As a mental health & clinical psychotherapist, Noah's experience includes working at the Michael Garron Hospital (formerly Toronto East General Hospital WMS), The Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work (CCRW), Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, and The Royal Canadian Yacht Club, before serving as current clinical director at Toronto East Psychotherapy. Noah's personal journey becoming a therapist is inspiring in its own right. You'll see why below.
Noah: I welcome you here at Toronto East Psychotherapy. I am grateful for you to make the time for us to meet.
Zach: Thank you so much Noah! I am very happy to be here. Let's start off with a simple but important question: what is “psychotherapy”? I feel that for a lot of people this word is actually very intimidating.
And it’s big! What’s the difference between that and a psychologist and a therapist? Good question. The way I explain it to my clients is that psychotherapists don’t diagnose. Now I do work alongside two psychologists. So if I feel that I’ve assessed someone, but still have some concerns then I’ll analyze the situation together with a psychologist. Research has shown that medication tends to work well hand-in-hand with psychotherapy or with counseling. That’s the word that most people use too, “counseling.” That’s another piece, most people think “I don’t need counseling. My relationship is OK, etc…” But I think we have to come to terms with psychotherapy or counseling, no matter what you call it, we need it. We are human beings. We go through transitions, choices every day, needs that we may have. If we don’t talk about these things we allow ourselves to get stuck inthinking traps.
Zach: Here's a big question: what’s your number one piece of advice for dealing with mental health?
Noah: It starts with talking about it. Before you talk about anything you are actually in your own zone.
I tell people on a daily basis that expressing our needs, or being vulnerable, is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength.
We’ve come a long way, and I’m speaking of Canada and North America– from where I come from originally, Uganda, mental health is still a taboo. In Canada I’ve seen the government, our Trudeau government, put a lot of emphasis on mental health and supporting people, families, and communities. This brings a lot of joy to me as a professional in this field, but there is still more work that needs to be done. And it also, I think, involves a cooperative kind of perspective, where the therapist treats their patients with a holistic approach in mind: considering the perspectives of the patient’s other healthcare professionals, such as family doctor, naturopathic medicine, chiropractor, masseuse. Together you create a holistic machine that cares for the whole person. I, of course, can personally attend to the emotional and psychological aspects, but perhaps it’s actually the person’s eating habits that are getting in the way. So how do we really bring together mental health with the rest of the body? A person, to me, is a whole person, not parts.
Zach: In one of your blog posts on work-life balance you briefly mention your memoir you are currently writing. Can you tell us a little bit more about that so we can gain greater insight into your motivations as a therapist?
The memoir should be published by the end of this year. It’s a personal memoir titled Restored: A Journey Towards Forgiving And Healing. And it’s been a long time coming. I wish it would have been out sooner. People that are aware of parts of my story have really been encouraging me to finish it in order to get my story out there. I speak about the trauma that I had to go through as a kid growing up in Uganda in a war zone. It speaks about the domestic violence that I witnessed through my family of origin. It talks about the addictions that my father struggled with and overcame. It speaks about my two brothers that I lost to addiction. It talks about my stress and PTSD that evolved from my experiences. But I also wanted to include some of the resources that an average person seeking therapy and mental health services may not be able to access. I think people can often feel stuck in a maze when trying to find these resources. I hope people will be able to read my book and relate to it, but also be empowered with actionable steps from reading it. Over the past few months, with the support of my editor, we’ve really done a good job of gathering this sort of information and resources to be included in the book. I feel this is a memoir, but also an academic book. I’m writing this book for everybody. I’m writing it for people that are on the verge of losing hope. There is a chapter dedicated to this, as hope was the only thing that kept me alive. I speak of overcoming obstacles and challenges. I describe witnessing the drowning of two of my closest friends. That led me to get myself into the lake, Lake Victoria, and teaching myself how to swim. Within that same year I earned a spot on the national team, that’s how I came into swimming internationally.
Zach: That’s incredible! I want to get a copy of your memoir.
Absolutely, I want to make sure that as many people as possible can access this book, not only in North America, but back in Africa and Asia too. I believe with all the uncertainties the world is going through, in terms of the influx of refugees and war torn zones– I’m thinking of Sudan and Congo and the Middle East. And of course the instabilities we’ve seen with recently political shifts, even here in North America, it’s important to have conversations about what we believe in and overcoming obstacles. I’m dedicating this book not only to my lost brothers, but also the youth.
I look at the youth– doesn’t matter male, female, transgender– as a crossroads. When someone is young, there are chances to be confused. There are a lot of voices and expectations on them. They can get lost. I remember the time, and I speak of this in the book, where I felt a lot of things pulling me from different directions and I had to focus. As I moved through all the challenges in my life I stuck by two rules:
- Never give up
- Always remember rule number 1.
I’m definitely excited. Right now we are scouting for the right organizations and companies that line up with our values to help distribute and raise awareness about the book.
Zach: In terms of your personal story, I guess now you’ve reach a point where you’re comfortable retelling it, but I’m sure that wasn’t always the case. What advice would you give for people who have experienced traumatic events and are looking to be able to tell their story as you can now?
Noah: Personally, and it comes out very well in the memoir, my overcoming didn’t come about necessarily because I was so powerful and strong, or because I had a lot of resources around me. My healing and recovery resonates from my spirituality. When I treat people I assess people from the mental health aspect, the physical, and the spiritual. Spirituality doesn’t necessarily mean religion and prayer, it’s form of serenity that bring peace and calm to you. It could be mindfulness. That’s where I found hope and healing. I never had a session of psychotherapy when I was still in Uganda. I went through my trauma without it. The intervention for me came when I emphasized my spiritual life and I had time dedicated to exploring the traumas that I had gone through. Only later in life, when I got into my psychology program, was I able to undergo psychotherapy and counseling. But that came after overcoming all of this. I needed to forgive my father for all the wrongs he committed. I did this by trying to understand his story. After he got out of the war, because of losing his only daughter in that war, he explained to me that he would almost beat us to death– beating my mom every night– because he was abused as a kid. Not until he told me his story was I able to understand him. So after a lot of conversation with him, I realized that I was a prisoner myself. So did my father. And by the time I forgave him I had gained a strong sense of courage. I speak a lot of forgiveness in the book. It doesn’t come easily. It has to come from the right place, an authentic place. If it is rushed, it’s not good. You often hear people say “you forgive and forget.” Who does? It doesn’t work that way. When you go through trauma and PTSD you are dealing with a scar (for help identifying symptoms and treatment options click here). When you look at a scar, you can remember and say “hey, this is what happened to me.” But if you can’t move past that scar you can have further trauma and PTSD. So i had to face my dad, I had to confront him, after I really realized that it was the right time for me. I felt that I was in a place where I could forgive him. After I did that I felt a huge weight lifted, and so did he. He stopped drinking in the three years after I forgave him. He’s a pharmacist and pastor right now.
The remainder of the interview with Noah will come to the blog in the next week or so. We also covered mental health tips for the workplace (with a particular emphasis on the responsibilities of executives/managers), the potential misnomer that is "work-life balance," and the general importance of open communication. Follow our blog to hear more from Noah on these topics, among others.
To consult with Noah Mugenyi in-person or remotely from his Toronto office, contact him directly through his profile.
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