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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Dr. Taghi Amjadi On Hafez and the Power of Seeking Mental Healthcare

By Shahriyar Najafgholizadeh (Center’s Communications Specialist)

Taghi Amjadi, Ph.D., a faculty counselor at San Francisco State University, did not begin his journey as a mental health professional. Like many of his generation who were born in Iran, and who came from a working-class background, his parents emphasized the importance of education to better his life. Although Amjadi was initially drawn to music, poetry, and the passions of the heart, when he came to the US to pursue his degree at San Jose State University, he chose engineering as that was what many young men of his generation were expected to study. Like many of his peers, he intended to return to Iran after completing his degree. But the revolution and then the start of the war between Iran and Iraq soon changed the course of his life. 

The Iran-Iraq War was tragic for both countries. Not only did it result in over a million lives lost, but it touched Amjadi personally. He lost friends, family members, and his younger brother. “Those events led me into a deep depression, and the effects were profound on my life,” says Amjadi. “As an engineer, I knew nothing about clinical depression. But my depression caused anxiety and had a debilitating effect on my relationships, my job, and my overall well-being.” Fortunately, Amjadi’s friend, who later became his partner, was studying psychology and she referred him to her own therapist. “It was during the process of getting therapy that I realized I would have been much happier studying psychology.”

IMG_1166Amjadi quickly understood that he had to align his profession with his values—his passion for music, human rights, and social justice –and needed to find a career path that better suited him. He decided to go back to school and pursue his master’s degree, and later got a doctoral degree in psychology, and began clinical work in 1997. He earned his California Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) license and since 2006 has been a member of the counseling faculty at SF State, where he says he “feels blessed to be working in such a wonderful university alongside many dedicated colleagues and staff from such diverse backgrounds.” Amjadi’s position at SF State in Counseling and Psychological Services, affords him the opportunity to work with a group of experienced licensed clinicians that are dedicated to providing mental health services and support to university students that he says, “helps them succeed in their student life and beyond.” 

Amjadi reflects on the challenges and stresses of SF State students and connects with them through his own experience as a young Iranian student during a particularly stressful time in the US when the revolution, the hostage crisis, and the Iran-Iraq War loomed over his life. “I remember when I was a student at SJSU in the early 1980’s and I badly needed emotional support, but was so afraid to even verbalize my need for help, never mind seek out a mental health profession. I am so glad to see students coming to the Counseling Center on their own and openly talking about their struggles in this very safe and confidential space. Sometimes, I think if I had connected with a counselor in my student years, I could have prevented many layers of suffering in my life,” Amjadi says.   

Amjadi sees a change in newer generations of Iranian and Iranian American students since his college days. He says that younger generations increasingly show more interest and concern about their mental health. “There is less stigma today in seeking help, compared with their parents’ generation,” he says. He also is aware that the many degrees of mental health make it possible for people to understand that mental wellness and illness is much more varied, and is not only defined by “craziness.” This younger generation pays attention to mental health as an issue, he says, that is equal with, if not more important than, physical health.

Although Amjadi switched careers to a more humanistic and socially-oriented profession nearly fifteen years ago, music and poetry have been the constants of his life. “I have been drawn to Persian classical poetry and music since I was eight years old,” says Amjadi, “and I have participated in many school activities and performances in both since then.” At the age of 16, Amjadi began training as a vocalist with master musicians in Iran and, later, continued his training here. “I have always seen music as a way to connect with, share, and humanize our culture. “Most of my performances have been benefit concerts that have focused on raising funds for causes such as homelessness, for non-profit organizations, or for those serving disadvantaged individuals and communities, and human rights,” says Amjadi.      

Amjadi’s therapy practice has always drawn from his love of music and poetry, and Hafez, in particular has been integral to his work. “Hafez became one of my teachers from an early age. When I went back to school to earn my Ph.D., I realized that many of the key concepts in Western psychology are identical with the psycho-spiritual teachings of Hafez, (and other poets such as Sa’di, Rumi, and Attar),” he says. Amjadi was inspired to write his dissertation about the psychology of Hafez. “His poetry and teachings are similar to integral or existential theories of psychotherapy and can be utilized in any therapeutic setting,” he adds. 

Amjadi sees the challenges many students face, particularly those who are far from home. He understands that students who have come to San Francisco from places like Los Angeles have significant adjustment issues, saying, “this is understandable as they have left their familiar environment, family and friends, and are encountering cultural differences and other unknown elements; imagine the pain and emotional and/or psychological struggles of those who have come from a different part of the world with different languages, religions and ethnicities. Most immigrants and refugees experience similar issues.” Amjadi underscores that refugees who have been through significant challenges before coming to this country generally have more intense struggles with mental health issues. “Depending on the period and form of migration, most Iranian immigrants come to this country with layers of trauma,” he adds. And because, he says, “trust is a major issue for most Iranians, opening up about one’s mental health issues is not easy. There is this tendency among us Iranians and Iranian Americans to think that our emotional and mental health issues can be solved with our own intellectual capabilities. This is especially true for many educated and successful Iranian men.”

When asked about the anxiety among SF State students and young people, generally, as a result of the political climate in the US and larger global issues like climate change, Amjadi says that indeed many more students are suffering from anxiety, but many still don’t seek help. “I’m pleased to say, though, that younger generations of Iranians and Iranian Americans, however, are more open to seeking help, and that many are now choosing psychology as a major.” 

We are grateful for Dr. Taghi Amjadi’s service to our campus, and his powerful story of transformation in his own life provides evidence for the power of seeking help, and seeking mental health services. If you are suffering from depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue, we hope you too will seek help. If you are an SF State student, faculty, or staff member, we hope you’ll reach out to Counseling and Psychological Services here on campus. 

Photos courtesy of Taghi Amjadi

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