Becoming Dr. Dhaliwal

On her journey to becoming a psychiatrist, Dr. Arash Kaur Dhaliwal is learning more about herself while engaging in new academic and advocacy opportunities to develop a better understanding of the human condition

By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

It’s nearly 4:30 p.m. and after a full day in the clinic, Dr. Arash Dhaliwal is heading to the emergency room. The junior psychiatry resident is about to begin her fourth overnight call shift in as many weeks. With only three psychiatry residents on call for the London area and supporting a population of nearly 500,000, the pace has proven to be intense. Her shift will end at 10:30 a.m. the next morning.

“The physicality of being in residency and the reserves of empathy that I need to continually draw upon is something that I’m trying to understand,” Dr. Dhaliwal said. “I hear and process a lot of difficult things on a day-to-day basis, and no matter what state someone is in, they know if you are being genuine. I’ve been trying to understand where the stores of empathy come from within me and trying to build those stores as I continue.”

For Dr. Dhaliwal, the process of becoming a psychiatrist comes with the goal of developing a better understanding of herself and the human experience. It’s a process that began when she was in high school and was encouraged by her family, colleagues and mentors who knew this was her career path even before she realized it.

When Dr. Dhaliwal was 18, the image she saw in the mirror was that of an emergency room physician, dressed in scrubs with the organized chaos going on behind her. Identifying strongly with that image, she left her hometown of Calgary for Hungary to pursue an international MD program.

She completed her medical training in Chicago after transferring during her clerkship.

While in Chicago, she found herself working with marginalized populations and was drawn to concerns around addictions.

Dr. Dhaliwal’s graduation from medical school coincided with the continent’s sharpest rise in drug-related deaths from Fentanyl and other opioids. This was not lost on her and after years of working with marginalized populations, she returned to Canada and put the full force of her energy into volunteering with street outreach agencies, which provided harm reduction supplies to those who needed them.

“There are so many people who don’t have access to traditional health care systems, either out of stigma or out of the complexities of their personal situations,” she said. “We were trying to bring care to people.”

Dr. Dhaliwal has mixed emotions when reflecting on these experiences. On one hand, she feels great sadness at the loss of one of her lived-experience outreach colleagues and on the other hand, she’s proud that a task force she co-founded and chaired has recommended and helped implement addictions programming like Calgary’s supervised consumption sites.

As part of her journey of becoming a psychiatrist, Dr. Dhaliwal decided to continue her advocacy work by becoming a Fellow through Western University’s Global MINDS Fellowship Program. The Program pioneers mindful social innovation practices to catalyze the development, implementation, mobilization and evaluation of disruptive solutions to reduce the global burden of mental and substance use disorders and related issues.

Dr. Dhaliwal and her team created a project called the Healing Basket, which focuses on the healing process of Yazidi refugee women in London, Ontario. It was co-created with the women themselves – a multidimensional community program that provides culturally sensitive coping strategies, promotes empowerment through social capital, encourages advocacy by finding a voice for themselves and others, and honours their journey.

Part of the program entails using local resources and services to establish a sense of community for Yazidi women in their new home, and many community organizations have already taken the open invitation to be part of the program.

With a passion for addiction medicine, the young physician presented at the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine on the pathways of care for those who use crystal methamphetamine and sat on the Mayor’s Opioid Crisis Working Group in London.

"I continue to strive to find ways to implement and provide access to harm reduction strategies for our patient population,” she said.

Preparing for another clinic session, Dr. Dhaliwal considers the day ahead as part of the overall journey she is on.

“I’m not sure if you can ever really understand how much anguish people are in and how alone they feel,” she said. “So I have to remember every day how powerful it is to ensure my patients feel heard so that they don’t feel isolated and alone with their mental illness. I also have to remember that it’s an honour and privilege to be in the position that I have been placed.”