Mental Health and Wellness with Felicia Wong

Photographed by Noel Besuzzi and Jason Wong

We are so grateful to our expanding and ever-evolving community -- and all of the knowledge, new ideas, and inspiration that they bring into our lives. One such member of our community, Felicia, is a mental health professional who works in Psychiatry and Wellness in Orange County -- and we recently spoke to her about mental wellbeing, her advice for these trying times, and how best to support ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. See below for a few deeply resonant insights that Felicia shared with us throughout our conversation, each of which feels so particularly potent and vital as we process the events of this past year and move into the next.

"I was born and raised in New England, and my parents are immigrants -- born in China just after World War II. They came to the US for grad school in their early twenties, and had my older brother and myself here. Growing up, I had the opportunity to study traditional Chinese dance and musical instruments -- so by high school, I became a cultural performing artist. It was my way of celebrating diversity and sharing my culture with my community.

Being a dancer, I had a pretty serious back injury when I was 19. During that time, I often felt depressed and demoralized. I had a lot of existential angst and stress; externally, I looked fine but I was in pain almost constantly -- my friends and even family sometimes had a hard time understanding why I could not do something or why I was struggling. I overcame this difficult period of my life with chronic pain with gratitude, therapy, meditation, and self-care. I realized that before I could take care of anyone else, I had to learn how to take care of myself.

The experience also brought me compassion for people who have more complex suffering -- such as chronic pain or mental health which are more intangible. People can look fine on the outside, but they don't feel good inside -- and it's not something that is easy to relate to.

Right now in my role at Kaiser, I run the emergency- and hospital-based psychiatry service for Orange County … Where I work, our emergency room is just so full that we had to open up extra units. As a psychiatrist, our primary job is to consult for patients -- but I can also see the stresses on my colleagues, my team, nurses, and the staff -- and that's been really hard to go through as well.

It's not just about COVID; it's about your health care services and your health care team. Our system is overwhelmed -- so many doctors are working day after day after day after day, without the normal ways to balance out the stresses of the job. They're doing this to take care of you and your family, your community."

Q: All of the numbers coming out about the pandemic also show how many women have had to put their careers on hold. Do you have any advice for women going through this?

A: "We can all attest to this fact -- that there's been a much more significant burden on women than their husbands and on men. Whether that's just in the workforce or taking care of other people just in general -- women are asked to do and juggle a lot more than what we already usually do, and that can be overwhelming and stressful.

I think something that is important is to make space for the different complex feelings we’ve all been going through. This has been an incredibly trying year, and we're not asking or expecting people to be okay or “fine”. That's not helpful; that's not really healthy. Women need to feel safe to feel and share - ‘I'm exhausted, I need to cry, I miss my friends, I miss my trips.’ It’s important to be able to grieve and express these emotions, and hopefully, find some sources of support. I hope everyone can recognize that it’s important to allow yourself that grief and space. To breathe in. breathe out. Vent. Veg. Fill that cup in whatever way works for you (take a walk, a bath, sit in your car just a few minutes more for alone time) so that you can continue to pour and give.

It's also important to manage expectations. This is not the time that we are necessarily going to all reach our ultimate goals. If you can, great! But I think just realizing that the most important thing is to take care of yourself, take care of your loved ones, and get by one day at a time and get what's important done."

Q: Is there anything that you recommend for people to do to take care of themselves during this time?

A: "I think focusing on what you can control is key. This year has been a crapshoot; it's not just COVID-19, we've also just had these microtraumas again and again and again -- so I think it is also important right now to feel those feelings, go through that grief, but focus on what you can control.Focus on what you do have power over. I think that helps us feel that we can cope with the day to day. Something that is really helpful when we feel overwhelmed is just break it down into something you can control and focus your energy on: ‘What can I do today?’ And if you have extra energy, to help comfort or take care of other people.

Something else I think has been really helpful during this year is gratitude. For me, my gratitude practice stems for decades, because I really feel like a large part of my recovery from my depression and chronic pain was through practicing gratitude.

Not isolating and connecting with others is really important, too. This year, we've had to pivot a lot -- but with creativity, we can still find goodness and inspiration and, quite honestly, joy. I think the outdoors is really healing -- following guidelines, of course, it's good to get outside for a walk or even just to pause and appreciate the sunset."

Stevens F.P., Pike's Peak at Sunset, 1902

Q: How do you deal with regulating intake of media and news?

A: "There is something very appealing and exciting and addicting about technology. The pull to keep on reaching for it is not anyone's fault -- there are all the studies that show that technology can be an addiction. I'm all in support of having a technology detox, and I think everyone needs to have a sense of how their intake of media, social media, and the news impacts them. I try to focus a lot of my time on social media in connecting and chatting about ideas -- and that feels really positive to me. But if people are starting to have arguments online, or if the news is just too much for them to process and they don't have someone to discuss it or bounce it off, then it's a sign that it might be the time to turn it off for a bit."


Q: Can you speak to how to help kids during this time?

A: "I'm going to speak generally as a parent -- because while I do take care of the whole lifespan at the hospital, from little kids to seniors, I think that my biggest experience is that as a mom. Everyone's situation is different, but what I can say seems to work for us -- and what kids seem to appreciate -- is structure. I have to say that, after seeing how the months passed, I think that seeing them participate in the regular activities and have stability has helped them. For kids to have structure, stability, and consistency is really important."