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Brown Girl Therapist: Sahaj Kaur Kohli Makes Mental Health Care More Diverse, Accessible, and Inclusive

Brown Girl Therapist: Sahaj Kaur Kohli Makes Mental Health Care More Diverse, Accessible, and Inclusive

  • The Indian American therapist who writes a weekly advice column in The Washington Post, founded a mental health and wellness community organization in 2019, and has a book coming out this May.

Indian American mental health professional Sahaj Kaur Kohli is on a mission to make mental health care more diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive. And to make that possible, she writes a weekly advice column in The Washington Post, has founded a mental health and wellness community organization, and has a book coming out this May. 

In her Washington Post column — Ask Sahaj — the Brooklyn, New York-based practicing therapist, writer, and speaker answers questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics, and more. She is also the creator of Brown Girl Therapy, a mental health community focused on people with bicultural identities and immigrant parents. 

Her book — “What Will People Say” — ventures beyond traditional Western therapeutic approaches. “Drawing on personal anecdotes, client stories, and online polls,” she digs into such issues as the “internalization of societal, cultural, or familial standards” that shape immigrant kids’ “dominant narratives,” according to Amazon. She “offers advice and tools for everything from navigating generational trauma, guilt, and boundaries, to breaking down stigmas around therapy and celebrating cultural duality.”

As a therapist, she helps immigrant families, and adult children of immigrants identify their dominant stories — what they’ve been told, what they tell themselves — when it comes to feeling enough in their differing cultural identities. She also aims to mediate cultural brokering between loved ones to create healthier and more supportive relationships.

In her weekly column, Kohli helps people navigate various personal issues. In the latest column dated March 7, a “33-year-old White American who’s in love with an Indian,” asks advice for dealing with “conservative parents” who “don’t approve of the Indian boyfriend I met online.” In the previous column, she’s asked on how to navigate a discussion with immigrant parents who want grandchildren even though you don’t want to have kids? 

She’s been asked to give advice on how to deal with a mother who’s upset on her child not taking parenting advice; on anting more kids with a husband who doesn’t want more; a “worried” mother who thinks her daughter’s boyfriend is “physically, mentally and socially inferior,” and “a White American” whose “brown Canadian” partner still send money to parents despite losing job.

Before becoming a therapist, she had had a six-year career in journalism where she worked as a senior editor working closely with a diverse network of freelancers daily. In this role, she specialized in mental health and identity-driven content, particularly essays involving disability, mental illness, sexuality/gender, race, and culture.

First in the Family 

Kohli is “the first” in her family “to do a lot of things,” she says on her website. Whether it is being born in the West, going to therapy, and marrying outside of her religion, race and culture, she says she “understands the unique struggles of children of immigrants.” She uses her “personal experience to create original resources and content for this underserved population,” according to her website. 

In a June 2019 post in The Huffington Post, Kohli wrote about what it’s like to be the first woman in her family to choose an interracial marriage. Although she “always identified as a Sikh, “ it was “hard to reconcile her identity in her dating life, she wrote. Before she met her husband, Sam, she dated both Sikh and non-Sikh men. “Honestly, I often struggled when I went on dates with Sikh men,” she wrote. In some cases, she “either felt too American” and like she “couldn’t relate or match their cultural experiences, or she was “forcing myself to overlook a lack of chemistry or connection to make it work just because they were Sikh,” she said. 

“In other cases, conversations about relational and marital expectations laid bare an underlying double standard of how it was only OK for men to grow up in this country and become liberal, opinionated, career-driven people.” So, “after years of heartbreak and a series of terrible dating experiences, I just wanted to meet a kind, respectful generous man,” continues. “Sam’s emotional intelligence immediately blew me away, and I learned quickly that he was very different from the men I had dated before,” she writes. “When I met my husband, I wasn’t making a conscious decision to be with someone who wasn’t Indian or Sikh.”

A Hands-on Approach

In an interview with Shondaland, Kohli said she’s been a mental health advocate since “experiencing her own trauma that required therapy to unpack.” She realized she wanted a more hands-on approach” to therapy, after working with freelance writers as an editor with Huffington Post, “developing essays about their own identities.” 

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Speaking on why she created a mental-health community specifically for children of immigrants, she told Shondaland that after she married Sam, she experienced her own” bicultural identity crisis.” She knew she wanted “to start a passion project on social media to merge her passion for media and mental health” as she entered graduate school “to study counseling.” In the beginning, she was “very intentional about doing research to see what existed and what needed to exist,” she said. 

She decided to go back to school to become a therapist. “The transition was difficult because I was 30 and having to come to terms with starting over in my career,” she told Shondaland, a production company founded by television writer and producer Shonda Rhimes. “However, the jump became easier and easier when I realized that my skill set as an editor will and does actually serve me as a therapist.” Now, she’s been able to “marry my passion for mental health and writing in ways I never could have imagined.”

Navigating the Immigrant Communities

But it was after launching Brown Girl Therapy, that she made it her “mission to only create original content and model the vulnerability that so many in her community struggle with” she said in the  Shondaland interview. “By writing about my own stories and struggles, I quickly realized that it was my identity as a child of immigrants that was at the root of it all,” she added. “I really leaned into this, and the platform took off.”

One of the challenges she faces as a therapist is discussing therapy with parents who might not fully understand or accept the decision of therapy. While “telling anyone that you are in therapy is a personal choice,” she told Shondaland that she “very often” is asked this question “by children of immigrants whose parents don’t completely understand the need or desire for professional mental health care.” She offers some tips. “It doesn’t always have to be a big conversation,” she said. “Instead, watch movies with your parents where mental health or therapy is a theme or storyline and have a conversation with them.” She said she “believes that when one person in a family pursues healing, that healing extends in every direction.”

She also has some advice on how therapists can “become more aware when treating someone from a different community.” She emphasizes the importance of doing “one’s own work to identify and explore your own perceptions and biases.” Another suggestion she gives is to “diversify your techniques, research, psychoeducation materials, and interventions.” She also wants therapists to “really consider how accessible you are as a clinician. And don’t pathologize what you don’t understand. Ask questions, be curious, and don’t make assumptions.”

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