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If you’re vegan and suffering from emotional ill health or looking for counseling support, does it make sense to look for a vegan therapist? And if you did, where would you find one?
It’s a question that burst into vegan consciousness at the end of last year with the publication of Australian psychologist Clare Mann’s book Vystopia: The Anguish of Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World. There, Mann provided what felt to many like a much-needed window into the emotional and existential challenges of becoming vegan – and offered a resource to find help.
“I believe that the vegan’s experience in a predominantly non-vegan world can best be explained through existential principles, since often they one day wake up and everything they believed to be a certain way, just isn’t,” explains Mann.
Lifting the veil
“Of course, non-vegans face the experience of existential anxiety, but a vegan’s experience is primarily related to the ‘lifting of the veil’ of the mass trance-like collusion so many non-vegans are not even aware of.”
As more people adopt a vegan lifestyle, there are of course more individuals experiencing the trauma of this reality they were previously unaware of: the scale of the exploitation of animals. Mann works with people all over the world in addressing what this means for their existence.
But if therapeutic issues are not vegan-related (e.g. if you are seeking help to process grief from a parent’s death) do vegans need a therapist coming from the same vegan standpoint?
“If our life events were strictly compartmentalized and easily isolated from other life events, then seeing a non-vegan therapist should be perfectly okay for an issue unrelated to veganism,” says Mann. “However, we can’t compartmentalize our lives, given that we are meaning-making creatures whose lives are underpinned by our values, beliefs, and ways in which we deal with our existential realities, i.e. that death is inevitable, and change is all around.”
The spark of veganism
“I came to veganism with one of those ‘lifting the veil’ moments,” explains Nancy Ellner, who provides psychotherapeutic support from her office in Chico, California. Nancy’s transition from 25 years as a psychotherapist to three years working as a ‘vegan therapist’ followed a period of ‘caretaker burnout’ after looking after her ailing parents in New York.
“Once they passed, I came back to California, and returned to my practice,” says Nancy. “But my heart wasn’t in it. I was tired and grieving and wondered if I would ever re-discover the passion that once fueled my work. The strength to bear witness to my client’s pain and the compassion to help them through it.
“I traveled a bit during that time and on a typically grey Seattle day, I left my hotel room and ventured out to visit a zoo I had noticed down the block. (this was, of course during my pre-vegan days) I ended up at a primate ‘exhibit’ and witnessed in an instant, what perhaps would change the trajectory of my life.
“It was an interaction between a woman and a large, orange, charismatic, very furry, orangutan. The connection between them was amazing and the light and presence in the orangutan’s eyes was mesmerizing. His level of consciousness, his human-like non-human presence, was delightful and profound. Something shifted inside me. I started reading labels and learning about palm oil. I watched a video of three terrified young cows, trying to back away from a chute leading to a slaughterhouse and I learned about the horrors of dairy. My heart broke and I went vegan.
“Soon after I launched vegancounseling.com – a therapy practice focused exclusively on serving the unique needs of the vegan community. I had re-discovered my passion – which you can find on Facebook here.”
Getting vegan support
Nancy is licensed as a therapist in California, which means her counseling services are available to clients living in the state of California or anywhere outside of the United States.
She has been contacted by around two dozen people who wanted a vegan therapist – but couldn’t find one in their own state.
“I had to turn them away,” she says. “It was hard on me but it was especially hard on them. I wanted to help and although I counsel vegans in California and all over the world in my tele-therapy practice, ironically, because of U.S.regulations, they were stuck searching for a therapist licensed in their home state.
“It was painful to see so many vegans upset and frustrated. They either had to keep looking for a vegan therapist or continue working with a non-vegan counselor unable to provide the kind of support they were so eager to find.”
For Clare Mann, this experience is more than understandable.
“For some vegans, seeing a non-vegan therapist would be perfectly ok as they would focus on e.g. a particular loss, conflict within the family generally or work-related issue,” she accepts. “However, for other vegans, their lives are so imbued with the philosophy of veganism that their ostensibly non-vegan issues do trigger reactions that, if the therapist isn’t vegan, might give rise to their distress.”
In those cases, Nancy says, if the client were to see a vegan therapist instead, it would most likely, be a positive and cathartic experience. It would be an opportunity for the vegan to finally feel seen and understood on a deeper level. And the experience can be just as positive for the vegan therapist.
An awesome feeling
“When I get to work with an ethical vegan client, it’s an awesome feeling because I know we understand each other at a different level,” says Valerie Martin, a psychotherapist who has launched her Val the Vegan Therapist service alongside her non-vegan Wonder Well therapy project. “We hold similar beliefs about animals as our brothers and sisters, and face some of the same lifestyle and social challenges/choices on a day-to-day basis.”
Something those who have been through therapy realize is that more than half the work is done by the quality of the relationship that forms, rather than any technical aspect or knowledge learning that might take part. And this means, of course, the therapist also has to ‘be in the room’.
Valerie agrees: “As much as therapy isn’t focused on me being open about myself (it’s about the client), I am a firm believer that an effective therapeutic relationship includes me expressing my humanity and authenticity. While I can do that in other ways with non-vegan clients, it’s extra special with vegan clients to get to share our excitement about things like a great new vegan restaurant in town.”
In fact, one of the relationships where this can be most fraught is with the therapist’s own therapist. Every practicing counselor and therapist has to be in therapy themselves. When Nancy Ellner became vegan, this caused a lot of tension with her supervisor where the relationship has been previously very supportive.
“My supervisor said to me one day, ‘I’m not going to go vegan you know!’ and it was, ah, okay,” explains Nancy. “My therapist is an incredible person, but it’s now much more difficult for me to share this trauma I feel as a vegan about how animals are treated, which has become part of my experience, and has become such a vital part of my work.”
There are, no doubt, many therapists who practice vegan lifestyles but do not bring those values and beliefs into their work. But for these three, and more, it has made sense to integrate those values into the therapeutic encounter.
“Just in the past month or so, I’ve started removing some of the rigid barriers between my ‘main brand’ and my vegan brand,” says Valerie. “I just reached a point where I recognized that if someone doesn’t respect my work or assumes that being vegan must equal an eating disorder, they’re not a client or professional relationship for me.
“So now I’m proudly waving the banner of ‘anti-diet vegan’ on my main brand, and I have one umbrella Instagram account @valkaymartin for both. But I am keeping the separate website because it’s a helpful resource for both new vegans and the vegan-curious.”
Vegan Therapy Network
“The Vegan Therapy Network (UK) is a free-to-the public reference site for finding vegan therapists of all disciplines,” she explains. “The main aim of VTN (UK) is to connect vegans who are searching for health and wellbeing with trained and insured vegan therapists, thus allowing them to then relax in the knowledge that their therapist shares their vegan values.
“With colleagues in different disciplines, it can sometimes be difficult to advertise your vegan-values. With VTN (UK) I wanted to provide a specific site where vegans (both the public and the therapists) can find therapists and clients.”
Both the therapeutic encounter and the vegan lifestyle share a common central experience – that of bearing witness.
“Bearing witness and being witnessed are among the most important human experiences,” says Valerie. “Whether or not we explicitly recognize it, we all have a deep longing to be fully seen, and we know it good it feels when we can offer that gift to someone else, too.”
Such witnessing of the suffering of others does not have to be limited to the therapist’s counseling room, either.
“We can all explore how to better hold safe and brave space for others to have permission to show up with their whole selves and feel seen, loved, and accepted,” says Valerie.
Clare Mann agrees. “To offer support to others, we do not need therapeutic counseling skills,” she says. “Being a good listener who is able to demonstrate empathy, non-judgment, compassion and a willingness to step into the shoes of another person, are important life skills to be of service to others and have good relationships.”
However, she believes few people are ever provided with these skills.
“In my own public training courses in effective listening, I’ve found that only three percent of attendees over the last 20 years say they have ever undergone specific training in how to actively listen i.e. use open-ended questions, paraphrases, challenge their own assumptions of what they hear, avoid jumping to conclusions etc. Instead, they assume things without checking things out and move too quickly to giving advice.”
But for those who are experiencing vystopia or issues related to veganism, social support is, Mann believes, essential.
“In the vegan movement, I think it is the lack of self-awareness of individuals who have never done any work on themselves (through therapy or counseling) that results in in-fighting between vegans. After all, vegans have all of life’s other problems and then we throw vystopia on the top.”
It’s fortunate then that this new wave of vegan therapists is emerging to help with just those issues.