‘Diverse voices were still missing from the mental health space’: The founder of Brown Girl Therapy speaks out

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, found of Brown Girl Therapy (Photo: Sahaj Kaur Kohli)
Sahaj Kaur Kohli, found of Brown Girl Therapy (Photo: Sahaj Kaur Kohli)

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month 2021, Yahoo Life is profiling of the many professionals who are focused on serving some of the country's most marginalized populations — and on changing the field of mental health while they're at it. Read all the interviews here.

Sahaj Kaur Kohli

Licensed therapist-in-training, child of South Asian immigrants and the founder of Brown Girl Therapy, an Instagram mental-health community for women who are children of immigrants. Also author of the forthcoming But What Will People Say? On Navigating Mental Health as the Child of Immigrants, from Penguin Life.

What prompted you to enter the mental-health space?

I worked as a journalist for about six years and I went through something traumatic, personally. I was trying to navigate therapy…while I was living at home with my immigrant parents, who, quite frankly, didn't really understand my need for professional support. And it kind of was the starting point of me being like, “mental health is really important. Therapy can be really important." I know that I wouldn't be who I am today if I hadn't had years of therapy. I really wanted to be able to provide that to someone else. So I decided to finally apply to go back to school, start a second career and now I am two years into a three-year program studying clinical, mental health counseling while building Brown Girl Therapy. It also became very apparent to me that diverse voices were still missing from the mental health space.

What's some mental health issues particular to being a child of immigrants today?

Something that I've definitely seen, especially in Asian Americans, [is] there's this perpetual-foreigner stereotype. So, I come from a Sikh family, where the men wear turbans. And I have nephews [who were] born in America, they identify as Americans, but…there's always going to be this sense of not belonging. Another thing that I've witnessed and have felt personally is the sense of constant, chronic guilt because our parents may have endured worse.

Some of our parents may have left wartime countries, or struggled through their immigration journey here — or when they moved here, dealt with a lot of racism or bullying, or [education] degrees didn’t translate, because the institutions here didn't recognize [them]. So for a lot of children… we may need to show up perfectly. We may need to make them happy, and if we make decisions of our own, that might not necessarily align with what our parents want for us, and it's often accompanied with a sense of guilt and a sense of shame.

What sort of uptick in mental-health issues have you noticed in the wake of anti-Asian and other racist violence over the past year?

I've definitely seen a need for mental health services that are more culturally competent, more culturally responsive to specific experiences of different communities. So, in the Brown Girl Therapy community, what I've been seeing now is that there is like the sense of thrivers guilt” [among] children of immigrants who are American — who are born here, who [are] living in a country now where vaccinations are more accessible, where cities are opening up 100 percent and so on. And then we take our origin countries, like India, Columbia, Palestine, and we're seeing all of these devastating crises that are happening to our families, to our extended families, to the people who are in our community. People are…grappling with their privilege while people in their community are being devastated by different crises.

What about the impacts of the pandemic?

When the pandemic hit, I was only six to eight months into building Brown Girl Therapy, and I had to really take into consideration the actual environments that people are living in. For a lot of immigrants, their sense of independence is going to work, school. A lot of Black, Latinx, South Asian, Asian communities live in multi-generational households… So, we're seeing a lot of people, families, jobs being threatened. We know that the COVID has impacted brown and Black people disproportionately in the U.S. And so in trying to transition my content to really speak to what people are actually living through… the community grew significantly those first few months, because I think people were craving a sense of connection and community with people who understood what they were living through.

How do you take care of your own mental health?

I really try to have my own self-care practices in place. And when I say self-care, I mean self-soothing, like distracting TV, making time to take care of myself physically and mentally. But I also mean prioritizing my relationships. The pandemic has made it really hard to stay connected with people I love because everyone is struggling right now. So I have been really intentional about setting those calls with my friends, with trying to see my family, especially my nephews. Right now I'm in the process of finding my own therapist in DC because I moved from New York. So finding and putting systems of support in place for myself so I feel supported in doing the work I do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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