Rapid Rounds: 5 Minutes with Dr. Shimi Kang

Written By The Rounds

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Dr. Shimi Kang is an award-winning, Harvard-trained psychiatrist, researcher, media expert, and international keynote speaker. She is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia and best-selling author of The Dolphin Parent, The Self-Motivated Kid, and The Tech Solution: Creating Healthy Habits for Growing up in A Digital World. Dr. Kang is passionate about providing science-based solutions that optimize the power of the human mind. She is the founder of the wellness, connection and innovation programs Dolphin Kids: Future-Ready Leaders, CEO of Get Sparky, and host of the YouTube show Mental Wealth with Dr. Shimi Kang. With all of these accomplishments under her belt, she is most proud of receiving the Diamond Jubilee Medal for her years of outstanding community service and for being a mother to three awesome but exhausting children.

Keep reading to find out more about Dr. Kang. Discover what it’s like to be a psychiatrist amid a global pandemic and hear her concerns and calls to action on physicians’ mental health.

1. What led you to become a psychiatrist?

“The only other doctor I knew of was an eye surgeon. I went to India and did all of these eye surgeries, and then I applied for an internship with the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. There, I worked on a project called the World Atlas of Mental Health. I was so struck by the science and the impact. Also, I was struck by the scarcity of mental health professionals, so I changed my mind and applied to psychiatry at the very, very last minute.”

2. What does a typical day look like for you?

“As a psychiatrist, I have a small clinical practice, about two half-days per week. I have a serious health issue called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), so I have chronic pain. All of that has made me very flexible. I need to be flexible with my job. I actually just applied for partial disability as I couldn’t sit and speak with my patients. When I do talk with them, now, it’s mainly on Zoom and a bit in-person.

First, I start with an assessment. An assessment is never long enough, but generally, it’s around 75 minutes and acts kind of like a meet-and-greet, and I try my best to introduce myself and get to know them as human beings first. However, many of these people have waited a long time to see me and have major issues that they are struggling with, so we get right to work. At the end of it, I like to give them some idea of what I think based on my training and background and almost 30 years of experience. I address what might be going on with them, and offer some recommendations. I always try to be very collaborative with them in that approach. I’ve worked with people who have had a lot of trauma. Whether it is Indigenous populations, women, children, those with PTSD, or people who have been traumatized by the healthcare system, including psychiatry and mental health. It’s a system that’s not good enough, in my opinion. I have to be very gentle and understand where someone’s coming from.”

3. What is the Dolphin Kids program?

“My first book was called The Dolphin Way and then released in paperback under the title, The Dolphin Parent. I use the metaphor of a dolphin in a variety of ways. The main message is that I want to call for a global elevation of our collective intelligence and consciousness towards the key 21st-century skills. I say that the dolphin is a great metaphor for these skills because I feel we’ve gotten out of touch with them in many ways, and they live in all of our brains. We all have a pre-frontal cortex, so we can all develop these skills. The five skills are communication; dolphins are great communicators, collaborative, social, and live in a pod. Critical thinking – so, problem-solving, they’re mammals who live fully underwater, so they’ve figured out how to do that and take breaths, and in fact, they alternate their brain hemisphere by sleeping with half their brain so that they can still breathe and swim. So, there’s a lot of cool science in that metaphor. Creativity is part of finding solutions too. The biggest contribution is that their known to be very altruistic and are a species that helps other species. I just thought it was a great metaphor, people can pick their own, but for me, it worked. 

There are three things that dolphins do every day that we’re meant to do as humans. I call them Play, Others and Downtime (POD).

  • We’re meant to play every day – dolphins, polar bears, all animals in nature, play. That’s what keeps us adaptable. Adaptability is survival of the fittest – the best fit in an ever-changing world.
  • The O is for others. They are extremely social, and so are humans. We need to maintain our social bonds – that’s different from socializing.
  • The D is for downtime – self-care like sleep. As I said, they manage to sleep! So, self-care behaviours like sleep and breathing and mindfulness.

I call for all three of those activities, which I say are actually sacred, human activities, and we have to get back to being human, and maybe the dolphin can remind us of that.”     

4. How has COVID-19 altered your career?

“As a physiatrist, it’s difficult. Eye contact, facial expressions, and tone of voice and that very human experience are such a key part of our work. So, that was difficult, even to wear masks, to connect with my patients in the same way. I had to be adaptable! I had to be a dolphin. I would say that as an author that released a book on technology, called The Tech Solution. This was released in August, and I didn’t know at the time that the pandemic was coming when I wrote that book, but it talks about and calls for creating a healthy relationship with technology. Like food, we have to recognize there is junk tech – like mindless scrolling and toxic tech – like hate, FOMO (fear of missing out) and comparing your life to others.

The science supports that COVID-19 has really accelerated the need to understand our relationship with technology. We need tech, of course, for things like this and for school and for work. We also know, though, that during COVID-19, cyberbullying rates went up by 800%, reported with an increase in anti-Asian, anti-black, anti-Indigenous, anti-LGBTQ+, along with tandem of social justice issues, we saw hate show up more online. We saw an increase in video gaming addiction, and this is a medical diagnosis, according to the World Health Organization. We saw an increase in pornography and online pornography. I’m really concerned about all of that.”

5. Have you dealt with physician burnout in your career?

“I would say I’m a physician that had burnout. Before I applied for disability, I definitely had burnout, and I had depression, too, connected to my chronic pain. Pain and depression impact the same part of the brain. I have seen it my entire life, working with colleagues and my patients. I think the most glaring example is that I just spent a week at St. Paul’s hospital here in Vancouver for my own treatment. I was there for seven days, 24/7, connected to medications. The nurses and doctors I’ve met in the last 12 months told me that they hadn’t gotten wellness training or trauma support. They hadn’t gotten training on basic breathing skills, mindfulness, gratitude. Again, nobody’s fault. They have to deal with PPE and vaccines and all of that.

I’m very worried about all of our front-line workers who have been running for a year on high levels of cortisol. Cortisol is linked to reducing our immune system, muscle wasting, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, mental health and addictions. So, I really call for a lot of support, not just for our front-line workers but also for all Canadians. We’re talking about stay-home orders and washing our hands, and I agree with all of that. We have to talk more about breathing, coping skills, doing yoga at home, vitamin C and vitamin D, and evidence-based practices to help everyone get through this time.”