⭐ Meet Nathan Ha, MD, PhD ⭐

Columbia Psychiatry News returns with "Getting to Know Our Junior Faculty," a series to introduce you to some of the department's up-and-coming faculty whose skills and professionalism contribute to our trifold mission of patient care, medical education, and scientific research every day. Today we introduce Dr. Nathan Ha (he/him), a psychiatrist at Columbia University’s Faculty Practice Organization and Gender Identity Program, who specializes in providing mental health care to adults and older adolescents and has expertise in helping those affected by differences of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

What is your clinical specialty area?

LGBTQ+ Mental Health

How do you hope to impact or have an influence in your chosen field?

My mission is to translate knowledge from history and the social sciences to improve mental health care for LGBTQ+ people, including communities of color, and to alleviate disparities by evolving our medical education and healt hcare systems to provide better care for everyone.  I earned my PhD in the history of science and medicine with a concentration in gender and sexuality studies at Princeton and worked at UCLA, where I wrote and taught about the historical injustices and disparities affecting sexual and gender minorities. Studies have shown, for example, that LGBTQ+ people suffer from higher rates of cancer, chronic illness, depression, suicide, and substance use stemming from stigma and discrimination. This work motivated me to go to medical school so that I could address these health disparities more directly by engaging in patient care.

What inspired you to pursue psychiatry? Tell us about your ‘aha’ moment.

In medical school, I knew I wanted to be in a practice that would allow me to serve LGBTQ+ communities, so I considered everything from internal medicine to surgery, endocrinology, pediatrics, and psychiatry. Our communities are so diverse, and the needs are so great that there are opportunities to serve in whatever direction you look. I talked to everyone who would be willing to share their wisdom with me, and repeatedly heard variations of: “Listen to your heart! But join us – there's so much work to be done here!” When it came time to apply for residencies, I was still torn as I sat down to write my personal statement. Thankfully, the writing process helped me to clarify my goals and values. I wanted daily opportunities to engage in interdisciplinary care; to think about and treat patients as whole human beings; to intervene and help them as individuals who also belong to families, cultures, and communities. Out of all the medical disciplines, psychiatry has developed one of the most robust frameworks for thinking about the biological, psychological, social, and cultural dimensions of health and well-being. I met a lot of people on the interview trail for psychiatry who had similar interests and passions so this helped confirm my intuition. When I talked with other psychiatrists at various stages of their careers and heard about their grounding in the social sciences, work for patient advocacy, and efforts to collaborate with communities to innovate grass-roots interventions, I felt that I had “come home.”

What are your long-term professional goals?

Given recent legal efforts in our country to restrict access to care for trans and gender expansive patients, it is more imperative than ever for healthcare professionals to be well educated about the social contexts that underpin the health issues and disparities confronting LGBTQ+ communities. It is by knowing this history and teaching others about it that we can become more effective advocates and practitioners. I plan to continue scholarly projects that will advance knowledge about LGBTQ+ health, to build more bridges between psychiatry and the humanities and social sciences, and hopefully, to create pathways for physician-scholars to build health care systems that can serve the intersectional needs of our diverse communities. I hope to be able to engage in similar projects here at Columbia. As part of the Gender Identity Program, I have amazing opportunities to engage in direct patient care, to teach and supervise medical students and residents, and to participate in faculty development and recruitment efforts to increase diversity and inclusion.

Outside of work, how do you like to spend your free time?

I love theater and the performing arts, so it’s been a great gift to live in NYC and have opportunities to enjoy the cornucopia of talented performances that are available here. I’ve recently seen Leopoldstadt and Letters from Max, and I am looking forward to seeing Fat Ham soon. For me, the performing arts are a powerful way for us to connect emotionally with other people, to experience not only the stories of the characters and performers on stage but also to hare this experience with our friends, family, and fellow audience members. I’ve found it to be a wonderful way to participate in the necessary and imaginative work of creating communities. During the pandemic, I also discovered the joy of calisthenics and gymnastics-based strength training that you can do with minimal equipment. I’m by no means a natural at these challenging skills but it has been a fun way to get in a good workout while learning how to do handstands, planches, and muscle ups as an adult.

What are you reading and/or watching these days? Anything to recommend?

I’m currently teaching a course on “Illness and Disability Narratives” for the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia. So I have been reading a lot of memoirs about suffering, resilience, and the ethics of care that we owe to each other as human beings who, as Susan Sontag famously put it, are all dual citizens of the kingdoms of the well and the sick. Two of the most moving and thought-provoking works I’ve read this semester include Esme Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias and Julie Yip-Williams' The Unwinding of the Miracle. When I’m looking for levity, I find myself returning often to Schitt’s Creek and have been enjoying Sex Education.