ode to joy
Yuan Liu '09
nick stevens
“Swarthmore molded me into a conscientious person who thinks about how to better the world,” says Yuan Liu ’09, a psychiatrist in New York City. “It was a formative time in my life.”
Yuan liu ’09

rediscovering joy

Psychiatry starts with understanding people’s stories
by Sherry L. Howard
On any given work day, Yuan Liu ’09 sees an ethnically diverse roster of patients with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. As a psychiatrist in the outpatient clinic at Bellevue Hospital, part of the NYC Health + Hospitals system, Liu says the demands and needs of her patients are varied. Interestingly, she often draws on her English literature degree for her work in medicine. “Being an English major is understanding people’s experiences, their narratives,” she says. “I realized that psychiatry was the opportunity I wanted to really get to know patients and follow them through their journeys.” After receiving a degree in English literature and studio art in 2009, she joined AmeriCorps and worked in marketing for Philadelphia Young Playwrights. During a Philly Fellows fellowship, she volunteered as an interpreter and women’s health counselor at a medical-student-run clinic in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.
Yuan liu ’09
Liu’s work at the Chinatown Clinic, operated jointly by Drexel and Thomas Jefferson universities, shifted her path. She witnessed the health disparities and social barriers that thwarted patients’ access to care. “That inspired me to go to medical school at a pretty late age,” she says. “It would’ve been nice to make that decision a little bit younger.” (She was 26 at the time). She attended the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and did her residency at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Liu says she chose to join the safety-net hospital last summer because she wanted to work with a high-needs patient population. Bellevue accepts uninsured patients for full-service medical care.

Liu also works at a counseling center and is building her private practice. Her aim is to “help people be more authentically themselves and reach their goals.” She was inspired by her mother, who obtained a master’s in nutrition after arriving in the United States. She had to leave the 4-year-old Liu in China with her father, but the two of them were able to join her two years later. Her mother, who had been a doctor in China, felt that she could find better opportunities for herself as a woman — as well as for her young daughter — in the U.S., Liu says. Liu is seeing the limitations of the American system firsthand, limitations made more apparent by the pandemic. The counseling center has long waiting lists, she says, because more people are seeking help for psychiatric issues, including from the stress of the pandemic.

In addition to treatment, she offers a simple piece of advice. “One of the things I always ask my patients is ‘What do you like to do?’” she says. “It’s hard to remember to go out to dinner with friends, read, go on walks, watch movies, really simple things. People forget that those things give them joy. That’s been lost because we put the world on hold. I encourage people to re-investigate what they like to do and do them.”