Like any good daughter of immigrants, I aspire to excel at everything — and that includes therapy. Since I was 16, I’ve been an assiduous patient. Science says mental health is important, so I optimize it by attending sessions, answering my therapist’s questions thoughtfully, being aware of my behavioral patterns, and staying adequately vulnerable. I’m familiar with the language and concepts of psychology. I practice mindfulness because I know it likely tamps down anxiety; I go for regular walks since physical exercise is good for my emotions. I’m conversant with terminology like “holding space” and “insecure attachment,” and I’ll deploy them for literally any reason. I know what the amygdala does. If you could grade people on being in therapy, I’d be gunning for an A+.
Despite my type A approach, this has all kept me relatively level and functional. But the past year has been different. I hardly need to explain why. A global pandemic threw my world into chaos, just like it did for everyone else. I thought I was doing as well as I could, given the circumstances. Yet, idly scrolling one day, I paused to read an unassuming Instagram post, a screenshot of a tweet that easily could have been a meme. “For children of immigrants,” it read, “there’s a number of reasons why it may be difficult to show up wholly and authentically in your everyday life and relationships.”
Okay, I thought, I’ll bite. I wanted, of course, to know whether I could be better at being mentally healthy, more perfectly savvy re: my brain. I swiped to the next slide.
“You may not have been taught how to handle failure or setbacks and/or you may not have been taught that quitting, walking away, or saying no can be acts of strength,” it said. It was Reframing 101, nothing I hadn’t seen before. But the fact that it was directed at second-generation immigrants prickled. I no longer felt like a member of the broadest class of people accepting general rules about how to live; this observation took a major part of my identity into account, and it was disconcertingly powerful. Swipe.
“You may have been taught and modeled that happiness derives from what you can show for what you’ve done.” Another little shock. I thought I’d already absorbed this kind of anti-girlboss philosophy — but after getting laid off twice during the pandemic, an extenuating circumstance if ever there were one, I had not been able to regain any emotional equilibrium.
Above the post I saw the account name: @browngirltherapy. I wasn’t surprised that it came from one of the Instagram mental health repositories that have recently surged in number and follower count. If you’ve ever searched “wellness” or “best meditation app,” the app’s algorithm has probably served you content from people like Nicole LePera, aka the Holistic Psychologist; Allyson Dinneen, who handwrites reminders at @notesfromyourtherapist; or Nedra Tawwab, a “boundaries expert” with over 900,000 followers. Mental health influencers are flourishing; platforms like Instagram and Twitter make their resources accessible and shareable, catnip for people who find therapy overwhelming, alienating, or financially out of reach.
I reached out to the person behind @browngirltherapy — Sahaj Kohli, a first-generation Indian American and therapist-in-training at George Washington University. The post I saw is typical of the account, which tailors mental health ideas for children of immigrants, and questions and contextualizes concepts like resilience, ambition, and love for people who have not always seen their cultural specificities addressed in such a way. “People don’t fit nicely into boxes,” Kohli told me in an interview last month. “I think that is the awakening that’s happening, that there is an intersection of identities that impacts the way that we engage with our mental health and the world around us, no matter who we are, where we come from, what we look like.”
This focus came from Kohli’s own experiences. In 2019, she got married, becoming the first in her family to marry outside her race. “I was going through my own cultural identity crisis, reflecting on the choices I was making and what that meant — having really tough conversations with my husband, with my family,” she said. “The more I reflected on my journey and was able to identify that being an immigrant kid is a big part of my mental health struggles and a big part of the things that I think about, I was able to share that on the platform and realize there were so many people who also felt the same way.”
Then, just months after she started the account, COVID-19 hit. “The Instagram page significantly blew up after that,” she said. She now has over 163,000 followers. When she polled readers in December, she discovered that they came from over 100 countries. “I take that very seriously,” she said. “I am very conscious that it is a very diverse group, that we are not a monolith. But even if we’re not a monolith, there are some shared experiences that we all have.”
Kohli started @browngirltherapy after noticing few platforms were dedicated to mental health for South Asian women — just one way the industry is not diverse. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2015, 86% of psychologists were white, 5% were Asian, 5% were Latinx, 4% were Black, and 1% were from a different racial background. (As a point of comparison, the general population is only 62% white.)
This means it’s common for people of color to end up working with a white therapist who doesn’t understand the complexities of their identity and experiences. Alison Chou, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University, had one such encounter. “She was an older woman from the UK,” Chou told me over a video call. “I’m a bilingual Spanish speaker, and she kept getting really hung up on that. She was like, ‘How do people react to you when you speak Spanish? Because you don’t look American’ — she just blurted that out. She started to correct herself, and I was just like, ‘Because I don’t look white American?’” Chou stopped working with that practitioner. “That really killed it for me because I learned two things about her worldview: She couldn’t perceive a world where an Asian woman could speak Spanish. And, clearly, even if she didn’t think it consciously, she was thinking, This person doesn’t look American.”
Chou aims to become a psychotherapist who works with communities of color and other marginalized groups. For her, recognizing the role race plays in the therapist–client relationship is key. “It’s impossible not to bring it into the room, because it’s a part of who we are,” she said. “As a therapist, it’s really important to not only understand the positionality of my client, but also my own [positioning] and what we’re both bringing to this interaction.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental healthcare should always take one’s culture into account. “Our culture, beliefs, sexual identity, values, race and language all affect how we perceive and experience mental health conditions,” reads a statement on its website. “It is therefore essential for culture and identity to be a part of the conversation as we discuss both mental health and mental health care.”
“Therapy is a luxury, and it shouldn’t be.”
Therapist Amber Dee started the @blackfemaletherapists Instagram account and a directory of Black women therapists in the US because she was having trouble finding one herself. “If I’m having a hard time, and I’m a therapist, I can only imagine what people who aren’t therapists are going through,” she said. Say you live in a rural area; there may not be any therapists close by, let alone one who’s a good fit. Not everyone has access to a computer or the internet in order to do virtual sessions. And then, of course, there’s the financial hurdle. Mental healthcare is expensive and sometimes insurance doesn’t cover it. “Therapy is a luxury, and it shouldn’t be,” Dee said. The practitioner pipeline is affected by similar issues; she pointed out that the formal education required to become a therapist can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Alfiee Breland-Noble, a psychologist and researcher of mental health disparities, told me that, given the industry’s current makeup, there simply aren’t enough practitioners who can cater to clients from various backgrounds. “We need more culturally competent providers for people of color and people with marginalized identities,” she said. Linguistic diversity is another problem area. “For so many people in the United States, English is not their first language,” she said. “They should not have less access to care because [practitioners] don’t speak their language.”
Mental health research has also not typically accounted for diverse populations. “What really began to crystallize it for me, and pushed me to become a disparities researcher, was I couldn’t find data that addressed treatment of mental illness that incorporated race and culture,” Breland-Noble said. “You couldn’t find any data that said, ‘This is how these particular interventions work for Black folks, for Native American or Asian or Latinx folks.’” Like in so many other areas of study, this dearth of research about people of color stems from a predominantly white point of view. “You have people in the field historically who’ve said, ‘Once I figure out how to treat depression, it’s the same for everybody,’” Breland-Noble said. “And you have those who look like me and my precursors who said, ‘No, because you’re not accounting for things like race, culture, the primary language spoken. If you’re leaving out two-thirds of who people are, how can you possibly be able to effectively address their mental health?’”
No wonder there’s skepticism among people of color toward traditional mental healthcare methods like therapy and medication; there is also, among some communities, significant stigma and taboo around such issues. The consequences of this racial bias are straightforward, Breland-Noble said: “We do not have the kinds of treatments that are necessary for people to live their best lives and achieve optimal mental health. And that’s a disservice. We should not put people of color in that position.”
Instagram is no balm for the troubled mind; it’s a haven for images of unachievable lifestyles and aspirational goods. Its negative impact on mental health has been observed many times over. But it has the benefit of being free and accessible to many. It’s also user-friendly and primed for spreading content; Kohli and Dee both say it’s the social platform they use the most. Dee likes “how easy it is for you to tag and share and save things” and said its broad user base is also an asset. “We have a lot of celebrities that will repost things or talk about, ‘Hey, I went on @blackfemaletherapists and found my therapist on there,’” Dee said. “It shows people that you’re not alone, you’re not singled out — these people also have their own struggles.”
Several Instagram accounts focus on mental health for specific groups: @therapyforlatinx, @sadgirlsclub, @decolonizingtherapy, @therapyforblackgirls. Their content seems to be landing with their audiences — “Why do your posts always hit home 🥺” reads one typical @browngirltherapy comment — but the people who run them are careful to note that these posts, no matter how well articulated, helpful, or attractively typeset, are no substitute for therapy itself. That’s something Jenny Wang, the clinical psychologist who runs @asiansformentalhealth, is careful to emphasize. “IG is not therapy,” reads the account bio. “Oftentimes, therapy is several sessions, sometimes many months or years of work,” she told me. “Instagram is very much like an introduction point to an idea. Taking that one introduction point and then assuming that is going to fix your depression would not be an accurate representation of the goals of that content. I put that in there to remind people that to do true mental health work, it must exist outside of Instagram, and that what is offered here is more informational.”
What Instagram can do efficiently is connect thousands of users. As psychotherapist Melody Li, who runs @inclusivetherapists, notes, that doesn’t just mean matching experts to laypeople. Professionals who have similar goals are also drawn to these hubs. “It becomes a coeducation space where people can share their lived experiences and share resources, inform one another,” she said. @inclusivetherapists runs monthly online trainings; recent offerings include “Tending to Racial Trauma” and a session on Latinx well-being. These connections can also extend beyond social media and traditional mental health spaces. “When there’s advocacy or activism work to be done, we already have a base of people that are ready to mobilize,” Li said. “For example, we’re currently responding to the anti-trans bills that are being pushed forward.”
“To do true mental health work, it must exist outside of Instagram.”
I had thought of mental health and activism as separate, but Li talked about them like they are inextricably linked. “I call myself a mental health justice activist,” she told me. “If we dismantle these oppressive systems, people’s mental health will improve. And their relational health will improve; the strength of communities will improve. They’re very intrinsically tied.” This shouldn’t just be the responsibility of the individual or the community, either. Claudia Morales, a psychotherapist who runs @socialjusticehealing, told me that mental healthcare for people of color should be better funded by the government — for example, establishing a law enforcement alternative with multidisciplinary crisis response teams that include mental health professionals.
And while it’s easy to think of mental healthcare simply as treatments like therapy or medication, Kohli said it’s more than that: “It is access to care, it is food, it is housing, it is policing. It is all of these things that we have to work towards and be passionate about advocating for in order for people to live and for people to live well.”
That’s another way many of these therapists differ from their white counterparts: They are explicitly oriented toward community care and collectivism in addition to a more familiar individualized focus. “A person can feel alone in it, having to confront all of these systems. That feels so big and heavy,” Li said. “But when we come together in community, and we’re among other people that also share their stories and how colonial systems have impacted them and their ancestors and their elders, then we start to find a commonality.”
Li grew up in Hong Kong, which was under British rule until 1997. She recalls having to learn English at school and being punished when she didn’t speak it. “Internalizing white supremacy is a survival mechanism. It’s a response to trauma,” she told me. “Our ancestors taught that to us, one generation to the next, because they wanted us to survive and to potentially even thrive.” On her website, she describes her mission as decolonizing mental health. When I asked her what that means, she said it involves dismantling colonial systems of oppression. “This message of ‘white is right’ is internalized,” she said. “How does that impact my mental health as I’m in an Asian body? Perfectionism, self-loathing, overworking — all of these are symptoms of internalized coloniality.”
When eight people were killed at spas in the Atlanta area in March, several Asian women were among the victims. My brain immediately slowed down, processing everything at a snail’s pace. I knew what was happening to me; studies have shown that news stories about traumatic events can have a big impact on people, especially if they consume a lot of them. Breland-Noble said there’s a term for that: vicarious trauma, which can be even more affecting for people who share the racial background of the victims. “Witnessing people being attacked, that is traumatizing,” she said. “We’re looking at people who literally look like us; they could be our family members.”
As an Asian woman, I expected the news to hit me harder than it did others, but I was still surprised at the obvious downturn in my well-being. I’ve worked in online media for several years, through a Trump administration, innumerable instances of mass shootings and police violence, and a pandemic. It wasn’t that I wanted to be numb, but why did it feel different?
“We have to help our clients, but we’re also dealing with a lot of the same concerns and issues.”
“It depends,” Wang said when I asked her why I might be in denial about the deleterious effects of the news, but she had some hypotheses. “For a lot of Asian Americans, we largely have been told that our experiences with racial trauma have not been severe enough; they have not sometimes even been acknowledged or validated. So sometimes when we watch these attacks and these experiences, it is triggering a lot of our past racialized experiences and trauma that have largely been unprocessed.” She added that with the cumulative effect of living through the pandemic and witnessing police officers brutalize Black Americans, we may already be at our limits when it comes to keeping ourselves from feeling overwhelmed.
So what can people of color do to take care of their mental health, knowing that the tenor of the news is unlikely to change? Breland-Noble recommended that people, as much as they are able, turn off the news or limit how much of it they consume. “I think the other thing is making sure that if you find yourself exposed, you find ways to replenish what you’ve lost,” she said. Meditation, exercise, creative hobbies like painting, or getting out into nature are ways “to clear your mind and find a comfortable place of peace.” She also suggested having some way to process your emotions — which could mean therapy or simply talking to someone who’ll understand what you’re going through.
It must be said that communities of color have always taken care of themselves, even if their methods have only recently become mainstream in the US. “Our healing practices have been stigmatized — Oh, that is superstitious or Oh, that’s not based in science — and oftentimes co-opted,” Li said. “White people take over and go, ‘Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, that is actually good for mental health. Now, let me sell that back to you.’” Even so, Li said, reclaiming traditional practices can be empowering for people of color.
Still, being a therapist of color who works with clients of color is no easy task. “We have to help our clients, but we’re also dealing with a lot of the same concerns and issues,” said @blackfemaletherapists’ Dee. “It is retraumatizing every time you see something else happening. And we’re all experiencing it as a community.” The people running these popular Instagram accounts are potentially speaking to hundreds of thousands of people daily. “I’ll be completely honest with you; I grapple with it every day. What does it mean to feel this pressure to speak to such a large community and try to help every single person feel seen or help every single person feel like they belong? Because I can’t do that, right?” Kohli said.
Being active on Instagram also opens them up to demands they can’t necessarily meet. “I have been very honest on my stories, and in my highlights, that I can’t respond to every DM,” Kohli said. “People sometimes expect access to you when you’re online. And I just want to remind people that I’m one person. It’s been interesting because I get caught in a loop. I’m a therapist-in-training. I have this platform. People look up to me. But I’m also struggling through the exact same thing as everyone else: the social justice movements, a pandemic, my own impostor syndrome, feeling isolated.”
It’s a reminder that mental health is holistic — affected by everything and anything, with no one right way to address it. And as I discovered, just because you know the path, that doesn’t mean you can automatically take it. Still, these practitioners are providing a map, one that charts new and surprising territories. “One of the things that I really learned from building @browngirltherapy is that my content has been able to give people language,” Kohli said. “Having language to name what you feel, what you think, what you’re experiencing, can be such a powerful thing. It helps fight shame and the stigma against mental healthcare.”
Li added, “The capitalistic mental health field that tries to sell people therapy and mental health makes it sound really complicated. But at the core of healing is when people feel heard, understood, validated, supported.”
Knowing all this — even knowing that tending to my mental health is a perpetual process — is a strength. So is recognizing that my well-being isn’t the only end goal. “I always wanted to practice in such a way that ties everything together because I don’t feel like healing happens in a vacuum,” Morales said. “To me, the end goal of helping people overcome trauma is also to help them find a meaning or a way to contribute to the type of world that they want to see.” ●