What Immigrant Children Can Teach Everyone About Mental Health |  CNN

What Immigrant Children Can Teach Everyone About Mental Health | CNN

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Sahaj Kohli, whose family immigrated to the UK from India, has struggled with an identity crisis familiar to many immigrant children.

As the first in her family to marry a non-Indian, the first to go to therapy, and the first to start talking openly about mental health, she found herself needing an outlet to share her challenges. In 2019, she founded Brown Girl Therapy, an online mental health community for children of immigrants in the West, to marry her two passions of mental health advocacy and storytelling.

Regardless of where their parents were born, children of immigrants often straddle two cultures. They are brought up with values ​​inside the house that may be different from those they experience outside.

Immigrant parents still teach their children the customs of their country of origin, often rooted in respect for elders. That’s why immigrant children may struggle with chronic guilt, noted Kohli, who earned a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Immigrant children don’t all share the same experiences, but Kohli learned about the behaviors and barriers many of them face. Setting boundaries and discussing mental health with parents will be the focus of her upcoming book, “But What Will People Say?”

“If you don’t do what you’re told,” Kohli said, “you feel like you’re doing something wrong or betraying your family.”

In a conversation with CNN, Kohli shed light on the difficulties that first- and second-generation Americans face while offering advice on how to navigate difficult conversations.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: Why do immigrant children experience unique mental health issues?

Sahaj Kohli: Children of immigrants often straddle two different cultures. They are raised in a culture where the norms and values ​​are different from the values ​​and norms to which they are socialized outside the home. You’re taught the role you’re supposed to play, and it’s rooted in respect for elders. This is why immigrant children struggle with chronic guilt.

CNN: Where does this feeling of guilt come from?

Kohli: Guilt tells us when we are doing something wrong, when we may have wronged someone else, or when we are acting outside of our values. But when your values ​​are different from those around you, then that guilt holds you back. It makes you act on someone else’s values ​​rather than listening to your own. Recognizing that guilt is a warning sign to slow down rather than a stop sign to turn around is something I find difficult for immigrant children to accept.

CNN: How do you see these challenges manifesting in the workplace?

Kohli: I often see it with children of immigrants who identify as women and the gender roles that have been assigned to them. If they grew up in a culture where they were taught to submit to an elder and they work with a boss or co-worker who has been with the company longer than they have, they might have a hard time saying no to that person, asking for help or struggling to say they have too much on their plate right now.

Many children of immigrants have grown up in (a) a hierarchical family system, and this hierarchy transcends the workplace. They feel that because they are lower in the hierarchy, they have to defer to people who are higher in the hierarchy. They feel like they constantly have to prove themselves or make those above them happy. Boundary setting seems intangible because they are constantly trying to make others happy.

CNN: How does the definition of success vary between children of immigrants and their parents?

Kohli: Immigrants often arrive in a new country with no people to lean on for support and sometimes with a language barrier. They come because maybe they were forced to, maybe they were refugees, or maybe they come because they want to give (to) their children a better chance. The historical legacy of immigrants is to have to prove themselves and to have jobs that have value for the economy. Immigrant parents sought stability and security, while immigrant children were privileged to seek passion and happiness.

CNN: What advice do you have for children of immigrants who find it difficult to talk to their parents about these issues?

Kohli: When you have a difficult conversation with parents, it’s about responding to their fear. Often, immigrant parents have a mindset based on fear and scarcity because they may have come to this country with very little. They may be afraid that you won’t have enough, and they don’t want that. This is why they prioritize security and stability.

Be vulnerable and respond to his fear. Help them understand that they don’t have to worry about anything, they just worry that their child is okay. Educate them about what you want to do so they can understand that it doesn’t have to be scary.

CNN: Where could there be a disconnect in languages ​​between child and parent?

Kohli: In many cultures, words do not exist at all. We need to stop thinking in English when we consider where our parents might come from. It may feel like addressing feelings of anxiety. How can you identify what you feel physically?

In many Asian cultures, mental health symptoms manifest as physical symptoms. Headaches can be depression, or stomach aches can be anxiety. Making this link might be useful. For example: “Mom, when you have a lot on your plate, I notice that your stomach hurts. That’s how I feel when I get anxious. You can also highlight the seriousness and talk about how it affects you (you) on a day-to-day basis. For example, “I used to like playing football, but recently I can’t get up and leave.”

CNN: These children often experience survivor’s guilt – the feeling that they did something wrong by surviving a tragic event when others couldn’t. What tips do you have for navigating this experience?

Kohli: Immigrant children often think, “I should just be grateful, because my parents had it worse. I call it gratitude shaming – where we shame ourselves for feeling grateful. The most important thing to remember is that just because someone had it worse doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t invalidated.

The desire to make immigrant parents proud can be isolating when you’re left alone to deal with your struggles and don’t know how to ask for help. It is important to have support systems inside or outside the family.

Pain and suffering are not a competition. It doesn’t mean you’re betraying your family or your culture. If you struggle, you are human.

CNN: What did you learn that can apply to anyone?

Kohli: Self-care is an important part of mental health care. …(It) reinforces the roles you are responsible for as a child, parent, partner, or sibling. For example, reframing therapy as something that is not selfish, but something that supports you in the values ​​you are rooted in within your family.

Self-care looks different for different family systems. It is important to seek external support from people who share your values. You never want to do this alone and plummeting without any kind of support when navigating mental health conversations.

Build those support systems inside or outside the family before you start broaching the subject, because it can feel isolating. For all of us, self-care in mental health is about finding the agency you have within the systems you live in.

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