Defying Her Culture, She Launches Mental Health Business
Growing up, Sahaj Kohli faced many challenges similar to other children of immigrants: reconciling the culture of her Indian parents with her own as someone raised in the U.S., dealing with racism and xenophobia, and navigating the world as a Sikh American woman in a nation where her faith was in the minority. Most of all, she says, there was a great focus on family and culture.
Looking back today at how she dealt with and processed life’s invariable ups and downs, Kohli notices a pattern. She was repeatedly drawn to therapy and counseling and keen on taking care of her mental health.
She first tried therapy as a college student, signing up with an on-campus counselor because it was free and driven mainly by curiosity. The process helped Kohli “self-actualize that I’m an individual outside of my family,” she says. Later, after graduation and while living at home, she had a traumatic experience and tried therapy again. Family members felt let down, as if they had raised her in the “wrong” way that led her to seek outside help or had not taught her to deal with problems on her own or through the family instead of with a health professional.
Her biggest breakthrough with therapy, though, was later on while living in New York. Working as an editor for HuffPost, she was living away from family, financially independent, and, as like any young person in their 20s, sorting out her life, passions, and purpose. A friend’s referral of Kohli to a counselor began three years of therapy, a fulfilling process of exploring trauma, relationships, emotional needs, strengths, and goals.
But something also at times felt off. Kohli says her therapist, a white woman — seemed at times insensitive, unaware, or even judgmental about Sikh Punjabi culture and Kohli’s upbringing in it.
Keeping Culture Secret
It’s a feeling Kohli took in the last 18 months and transformed not only as a new career but a viral media business — all centered around South Asian American women and mental health.
Kohli, who left her editing job in August 2019, is now a student and therapist-in-training at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the founder of Brown Girl Therapy. The Instagram account and educational organization — it has nearly 160,000 followers — offers advice, personal stories, and strategies around mental health for children of immigrants. Kohli also shares bits of advice on her Twitter account.
“At one time or another, children of immigrants are often stuck in a place where they have to love the people, pursuits, hobbies, & things they love in secret because it doesn't align with what's expected of them, what they were taught, or what they'll be supported in,” says one recent message posted on both platforms.
Kohli, who is in her second year of the three-year graduate program, also has been hired by companies — including Google and Amazon — to facilitate diversity and mental health initiatives. She is working on a book about mental health, and hopes one day to have her own practice specializing in counseling for South Asian American women.
“Brown Girl Therapy started as an event when I was living in New York and asked women to meet in Central Park on a Saturday for an open-ended conversation,” she recalls. “It was supposed to be 1.5 hours. It ended up being four hours covering all kinds of mental health struggles related to immigrant parents, romantic partnerships, grief. It just grew from there to where it is now online. During the pandemic, when so many people were staying home and some had moved back in with parents and families, the audience grew exponentially.”
Decolonizing Mental Health
“The values and needs that I have as a Sikh Punjabi American woman married to a white man — as a child of immigrants, as someone who grew up in a household with collectivist values — I’ve realized that a lot of people share some part of these values and a desire for mental health resources,” she says. “It’s about decolonizing mental health, in a way.”
In terms of race, the need couldn’t be greater. Data from the American Psychological Association shows that 86% of psychologists in the U.S. are white. The rest are Asian (5%), Latinx (5%), Black (4%) and multiracial, or of other racial or ethnic groups (1%). While the profession was once overwhelmingly dominated by men, more women are entering careers in counseling these days than men. (It was 127 years ago that Margaret Floy Washburn became the first U.S. woman to earn a doctorate in psychology.)
“Psychotherapy is a Western construct and is only one way to seek support for decision-making, life challenges, overcoming trauma, or managing mental illness,” says Mona Klausing, an Indian American LMFT (licensed marriage and family therapist) who runs a private practice focused on South Asian American clients and is also an adjunct faculty member at the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at San Diego State University.
“Some South Asian communities may have a preference for seeking the counsel of family, elders, religious leaders, healers, etc., instead of a psychotherapist who is a stranger,” says Klausing. “There is also a widely held belief that one must be mentally ill to see a therapist/psychologist. So it's important to educate South Asian communities that there is no shame in seeking support in multiple ways, including through the help of a trained professional.”
Kohli and Klausing are part of a growing community of women of color working in therapy to provide resources to their communities.
“There is ample need out there for culturally responsive therapy and ample examples of methods that aren’t culturally responsive,” says Kohli. “A simple one is that many children of immigrants live in multigenerational households, which affects how they see family and self. I’m trying to use personal experience, research, and anecdotal analysis to offer what I can to people like myself and hoping for the resources to continue to grow for all kinds of people of different backgrounds and needs in the future.”