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Passionate Psychologist

Dr. Elaheh Ashtari’s Iranian heritage and commitment to social justice have influenced her career in serving others.

Dr. Elaheh Ashtari (Photos by Alex Rosa for OutSmart magazine)

aHving been born in Shiraz, Iran, clinical and forensic psychologist Elaheh Ashtari is finding the current atrocities going on in Iran unbearable. “My family fled Iran’s oppressive regime to Germany in the early ’80s when I was 2. My uncle lived in the US at the time, so he was able to file for Green Card sponsorship for all of us and we moved to Texas when I was about 4,” Ashtari explains.

Iran was a free country governed by a monarchy before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 changed everything. “Luckily, my parents had the forethought to know we couldn’t stay,” she says. “So we literally left everything we ever had or knew, and fled.”

Elaheh Ashtari, 40, was raised, alongside her sister, here in Sugar Land. “My dad raised us to always be true to who we are, share our heritage with others, and make sure people learn that Iranians are good people—and that the Iranian regime is not representative of who we all are. I am fortunate to have been raised with such strong values and morals.”

Of course, being raised in America by Iranian parents was not easy. Her parents struggled to acculturate, while she longed to be an American. The conflict created a wedge in their relationship. “I did not always understand them, and they did not always understand me.”

Ashtari’s parents also wanted her and her sister to adopt aspects of the Iranian culture. “But that was really hard for me while growing up. I recall putting on my Discman headphones to listen to my American CDs whenever they listened to Iranian music.”

When she turned 18, she finally had the opportunity to visit Iran. She spent a month there and discovered what she had been missing while living in the US: “The love of extended family, including over 80 first and second cousins I got to meet upon arrival; the beautiful mountains of Tehran; Persepolis; Iranian pizza; Persian food; and the green, lush mountains of Shomal in Northern Iran. I could go on and on.”

Ashtari’s cultural identity was greatly influenced by her visit to Iran. “I finally got what my parents were trying to share with me all those years. I came back refreshed in my sense of self—as well as weighed down with immense guilt, because I acknowledged my privilege to have had the opportunity to live in the US while all of my family in Iran was deeply oppressed.”

Ashtari holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology (with honors) from the University of Houston, and master’s and doctoral degrees from Adler University in Chicago. Along with being a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist, she is also an associate professor of psychiatry at UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School, and serves as the vice chair of their diversity and inclusion program.

“I primarily teach psychology and psychiatry trainees, as well as provide psychological services at an inpatient psychiatric hospital. Additionally, consistent with my values and commitment to social justice, I was just recently appointed to the Equality Texas Board, where I hope to be able to affect change in Texas as it pertains to LGBTQ+ Texans.”

Ashtari has experienced emotions ranging from elation to deep sadness about the violent uprising going on in Iran right now. “The silence has been deafening—the degree to which  the media have avoided this important news story. I am sad because the regime is murdering my own people who are simply fighting for an ordinary life—a life where they can kiss their partner in public; a life where they can get a job and provide for their family in a sustainable way; a life where they can impact change through legitimate elections; a life without a dictatorship; a life where they can practice any religion they wish and have a choice in wearing or not wearing a hijab, consistent with their personal values and spiritual beliefs.

“The initial uprising has become much larger and more meaningful than [a protest over women being required to wear] a hijab,” Ashtari emphasizes. “We cannot protect women and have a feminist uprising without considering our LGBTQ+ community. I hope my community considers this in the journey toward a free Iran. This revolution is for all people’s freedom and civil rights.”

Living in Texas during this revolution in Iran has been a mixed blessing for Ashtari. “I feel relief because there is no going back; there cannot be a regression to the regime’s Iran. This uprising—and now the revolution—is unprecedented in Iran. I also feel grief because I am aware of my privilege. [But I] have tried my best to amplify these Iranian voices so they can get the acknowledgment and support they need for a free Iran. ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’ (Women, Life, Freedom) is the revolution’s chant.”

She wants to remind readers that they can also help amplify the Iranian protesters’ voices. “If you see a news story, re-post it. Say—and hashtag—the names of the people who are being unlawfully detained or executed for fighting for their freedom. Write your senators. Use hashtags. Talk about it. Demand that the US refuse any further talks or negotiations with this regime so the regime can realize they are no longer relevant. Demand news coverage from your local and national news channels.”

The protesters in Iran truly need people everywhere to amplify their voices, because their oppressive government is doing all they can—including executions and internet shutdowns—to silence them. “The people of Iran need our support, and they need to see they are not fighting alone,” Ashtari adds. “If it weren’t for the people and media amplifying their voices, however minimal it may have been, the UN may never have [felt pressured] to remove the Islamic Republic of Iran from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. This was a direct response to the brutal crackdown on the women-led movement in Iran, and [the UN’s response] is considered a huge victory in this movement.”

“If we don’t seek help when we need it, those emotions pile up and emerge in physical illness. Seeking therapy is truly the best gift we can offer ourselves.” —Dr. Elaheh Ashtari

And because all of this unsettling news can negatively affect our emotions and our mental health, Ashtari offers readers a few New Year’s tips for remaining motivated and hopeful. “If we don’t seek help when we need it, those emotions pile up and emerge in physical illness. Seeking therapy is truly the best gift we can offer ourselves.”

Dr. Elaheh Ashtari’s Seven Mental-Health Tips for the New Year

  • Talk to someone. Find a trusted friend or therapist, and share your experiences with them.
  • Engage in activities you used to enjoy as a child. We might think that we’ve grown out of them, but the activities we experienced as kids often brought us great joy. Did you paint as a kid? Do it now! Did you like roller skating down your street? Do it now! You will find
    that same joy can emerge again.
  • Remind yourself that no emotion lasts forever, even if it feels like it. So when you have an uncomfortable emotion, you don’t have to act on it and you don’t have to sit in it forever. Choose to remind yourself that pain and joy are both temporary. You might engage in an activity just for distraction, but also consider doing a healing activity.
  • Exercise self-care. Self-care means small acts of self-kindness, and also self-nurturing. For example, be mindful of your nutrition intake every day, move your body through exercise or other fun physical activities, drink plenty of water, take care of yourself before taking care of anything or anyone else, and say No when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do! Take breaks, and practice self-compassion.
  • Practice realistic and kind self-talk. Let’s not forget how awful we can speak to ourselves—things we would never say to our best friend or loved ones! Be real with yourself, do your work, and be kind when you self-reflect.
  • Do something nice for someone else. Contributing to others’ joy can also help us feel better, but only after we have met our own self-care needs.
  • Take a hot or cold shower, and practice mindfulness using your five senses throughout the whole experience. Smell the scents, feel the suds on your skin, and every time you get distracted with internal thoughts, just redirect your attention to what is happening right then and there with the sensations.

For more info, visit tinyurl.com/3xsn4pzv.

This article appears in the January 2023 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Jenny Block

Jenny Block is a frequent contributor to a number of high-profile publications from New York Times to Huffington Post to Playboy and is the author of four books, including “Be That Unicorn: Find your Magic. Live your Truth. Share your Shine." She has appeared on a variety of television and radio programs from Nightline to BBC Radio to Great Day Houston and has performed and spoken at bookstores, events, conferences, and resorts in the US and Mexico, as well as on Holland America Cruise ships.
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