By Puni Kalra
On Sunday, August 5, 2012, at approximately 10:30 am, a gunman arrived at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and killed 7 people, including himself. I was sitting in my home in Aurora, Colorado that morning and learned of the event as I was scanning my Facebook newsfeed. I immediately ran to the television and could not believe what I was seeing…swat teams at a Gurdwara and images of Sikh men, women, and children in distress. It was utterly heartbreaking. I went numb for the next 24 hours.
The following night, I called my childhood friend in Chicago to process what had happened. We were both still in shock. Having grown up in the Sikh community and going to youth camps since the age of six, this hit very close to home in every way — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The Gurdwara was my second home, and even though I may have grown up in Chicago and this was an hour away, it didn’t matter. This was still my Gurdwara and the people that were affected were my Sikh brothers and sisters.
The information I received from my friend and my brother on-site indicated that there was little mental health presence. I knew how resistant our community was to mental health intervention but also how important it was that they receive it in the context of this tragedy. I also believed that our community would not respond to traditional forms of outreach such as the Red Cross as there were significant cultural and language barriers that needed to be considered. If any kind of trauma intervention was going to be effective here, it was going to have to come from within our community. That was going to be a challenge: We may have lots of medical professionals in the South Asian community, but we have relatively few mental health professionals and that is what was needed. When I ended the call with my friend that evening, we agreed that I would send out an email to my networks in the psychology community requesting some help in the Wisconsin area. Before I went to bed, with a heavy heart, I reached out to mental health professionals on the SAPNA listerve (South Asian Psychological Networking Association) and the AAPA listserve (Asian American Psychological Association). On Tuesday morning when I woke, I had over 500 emails from around the country flood my inbox. There were so many kind notes of compassion and concern, along with people providing their credentials and experience and offering their services from across the country. I was not ready for all of this, but I knew that something had to be done.
I was fortunate enough to be connected with a well-respected member in the Wisconsin Sikh Community. He was a medical professional working to organize a relief effort. I shared ideas with him based on my nearly two decades of cross-cultural trauma experience, and we agreed that it would be most beneficial if we collaborated in this relief effort. The first step was for him to introduce our mental health relief effort to the Gurdwara leadership and let them know that we were committed to being there for them for at least six months. There was a media circus amongst them and it appeared that everyone was seeking their 15 minutes of fame. I wanted our community to know that we understood that the healing would not begin until they could return to some sense of normalcy and that we would be there for them long after the cameras left and the news stories faded.
We decided to call our relief effort The Sikh Healing Collective. Its mission was to bring together all trained mental health professionals to provide support to the Oak Creek Sikh community following the tragic shooting. We used various methods to identify mental health professionals (emailing listservs and organizations, creating national database). The final result: Nearly 50 mental health professionals representing 10 states across the country came together to provide support to the Sikh community. Our volunteers were South Asian and Non-South Asian. They were Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. This was truly a collective effort.
We knew there would a great deal of stigma in receiving mental health support in our Gurdwara. It was important to package our support in a way that was non-threatening and face-saving. Because we value education in our community, we decided to provide validation and support through that angle. Over the course of six consecutive weeks, we developed and distributed nearly 300 handouts in English & Punjabi each week. These handouts were custom-developed by a group of South Asian mental health professionals and were on topics relevant to the community’s healing process. Topics were determined based on questions and concerns the community was bringing to our team each week, and included information about PTSD symptoms, survivor guilt, and intrusive thoughts and insomnia. A 10-minute presentation was also delivered in front of the congregation each week by a Punjabi-speaking mental health professional to elaborate on the handout. We believed that by providing information to the community, it would help them normalize their feelings and identify professionals they could approach when they had additional questions. It was important that they had a summary of the presentation in written form so they could review it and take it home with them. It was our hope that other family members who were not comfortable attending the Gurdwara would see these handouts on their kitchen tables and receive some relief as well.
We had a different approach to meeting the needs of the children. For the same six-week period that the adults were receiving educational materials in oral and written form, approximately 30 children ages 6-14 were placed in one of three groups to receive trauma counseling. Our volunteers partnered with trauma therapists from the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin to provide group therapy and support to all the children using language translation and cultural customization when needed.
We learned quickly that we would need to rely on a small group of local professionals who could commit to coming to the Gurdwara on a regular basis. The community was overwhelmed with the number of new visitors each week and they needed consistency from our team in order to begin building a trusting relationship. This was a challenge as we were being offered help from people around the country, but they would not be able to be physically present as regularly as we needed them. Once we identified the number of South Asian mental health professionals available regularly in the local Milwaukee-Chicago area, we branched out and solicited support from non-South Asian professionals. Several came forward who had experience with immigrant populations to provide their services to our community either free of charge or on a sliding scale. We created a distribution flyer with their pictures, credentials, specializations, insurance preferences, and contact information. We invited them to visit our Gurdwara and connect with the community. We developed a cultural information packet to help them better prepare for their Gurdwara visit and understand our Sikh practices.
We have learned many lessons along the way. In order to provide effective mental health intervention in communities that are historically highly resistant to it, it is important to identify and align with their values. Education is valued in our community, so we packaged our information about the grief process in educational materials that were delivered in English and Punjabi and in written and oral form. We made sure to stay away from words such as counseling, therapy, or support groups as they are heavily loaded with stigma. We joined the community members in their healing process by focusing on building a relationship with them, slowly and gradually, with the same small team of mental health professionals each week. This was the first time that anyone has provided mental health intervention in a Sikh Community following a tragedy of this magnitude. Both professionals and community members were swimming in unchartered waters. We may have come with general ideas of what is effective trauma intervention, but we knew that in order to be successful, we needed to be open and flexible and to customize our approach every step of the way based on what they needed. This was our Sikh community’s journey in healing, and they were going to lead the way. We were there to listen and to follow.
A critical component of the Sikh Healing Collective is community empowerment. Part II will discuss how we launched the Sikh Brother Sikh Sister Mentorship Program at the Oak Creek Gurdwara after completing the trauma groups and its ongoing impact on the community. Stay tuned for more lessons learned on the field…
Puni Kalra has a PhD in Clinical Psychology with a specialization in cross-cultural trauma. For nearly two decades, she has been working with children, women, families, and communities of color who have faced traumatic events. She has co-founded two organizations that were designed to support the education and professional training needs of South Asian psychologists: South Asian Psychological Networking Association (SAPNA) and the Division of South Asian Americans (DoSAA) within the Asian American Psychological Association. These organizations collectively serve over 500 members worldwide.
In addition to being in private practice, Puni is also adjunct faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership where she serves as an executive coach and consultant. She has creatively transferred many of her skills as a trauma psychologist to the corporate world by motivating and inspiring high-potential performers to improve their leadership competencies. She works jointly with corporate leaders and senior executives to develop strategies and skills that get them the results they need. Puni provides executive coaching and consulting to clients throughout the U.S. and across several countries. She works in various industries, including health care, government, education, non-profit, and law enforcement.