As members of the Sikh faith, we were in shock when we received the news on Aug. 5 that six members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek had been shot and killed. Immediately, we reached out to our families and were glued to the television as we tried to make sense of such a terrible tragedy. Having been raised as Sikh women within Indian families and growing up attending our own Sikh Gurdwaras (houses of worship), we felt a palpable sense of what this community was experiencing.

The shooting occurred between the end of the Sikh religious service and the beginning of langar (which means “community kitchen” and is a Sikh tradition to prepare and offer food to the congregation and anyone who is in need), a sacred time of community connection and devotion. In addition to watching this terrible event unfold on television, as counselor educators, we were immediately concerned about the degree to which members of the Oak Creek Gurdwara would receive culturally competent mental health services. So, as two people who have bonded together not only as Sikh, Indian women, but also as counselor educators, we decided to write a statement encouraging our colleagues to read resources relevant to providing culturally competent mental health resources to our community, both within and outside of the Oak Creek community.

Since writing that statement just a week ago, we have responded to more than 100 people who have written to us expressing their support for the Sikh community at large, their commitment to educating future counselors and their desire to learn more about the Sikh faith. One of the common questions we have been asked is what counselors should know about this specific tragedy. We believe counselors should have three major pieces of knowledge.

First, counselors should know the basic tenets of Sikhism. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion and is founded on principles of social justice. Sikhism promotes respect for all people, service to humanity and sharing resources. Sikh men and women have uncut hair, and men are recognizable by their turbans and beards (some Sikh women wear turbans as well). Sikh boys wear a patka (a bandana-like head covering) before they begin wearing turbans. Because of these clear visible identifiers as religious minorities, they have been targets of both overt and covert prejudice and discrimination. (It is important to note that not all Sikhs have these visible identifiers and yet may still have oppressive experiences.)

Second, counselors should be aware that Sikh Americans often experience hate violence. This is because we are perceived to be “perpetual foreigners” or “terrorists” due to ignorance and discrimination in the United States. This hate violence is often linked to anti-Muslim sentiments as well, and often goes unnamed in media reporting about the Oak Creek shooting and other hate violence against Sikhs. A tragedy such as the one in Oak Creek can retraumatize individuals and underscore their vulnerability.

Third, there is a cultural context of grief and trauma that is distinctly Sikh that counselors should be aware of to provide effective intervention and prevention efforts. Sikhs rarely turn to mental health services as a source of support; they more often rely heavily on family and community. The Gurdwara is a community gathering space. In addition, the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) is seen as a guide to everyday life and is turned to both in times of joy and distress. It is important to consider that because the Gurdwara was the place of the shootings and the Sikh community was the target, the grief process might be further complicated because traditional sources of support have been disrupted.

For us, one of the best parts of being Sikh counselor educators during this time has been connecting with other Sikh counselors and other helping professionals to form a group called the Sikh Healing Collective. Members of the collective are fellow Sikhs who are developing short-term and long-term support systems for the Oak Creek Sikh Gurdwara members, as well as developing prevention efforts (for example, writing this article, asking national organizations for statements on this tragedy, writing letters to teachers who will work with the children who witnessed this response or who are aware of this tragedy). We encourage other counselors to consider the resources they might need if a similar tragedy occurred to Sikhs in their community, or on a larger scale. In developing a strong response that is multiculturally competent and mindful of the numerous social justice issues involved, it has taken many, many helping professionals networking across states, conference calls and knowledge bases.

If we were to give recommendations to counselors who might find themselves working in the midst of a tragedy similar to this, we would suggest that they work together with other mental health professionals from the targeted community, as well as allies to the community. Although it’s clear that the imminent crisis first needs to be addressed, it is essential that counselors develop and implement short- and long-term goals, both at the local and national levels. Counselors and counselor educators together should work to educate laypersons and mental health professionals alike. In addition to education, training for future professionals is vital for continued culturally competent counseling services.

To best assess needs, it is important to engage in community-based research and assessment on issues that the community perceives to be important. Best practices would include individual and group work with people directly and indirectly affected by the tragedy, as well as systemic work in schools, universities, organizations and government entities.

As we write this article, we are reminded of the importance of infusing a focus on prevention in our work as counselors and counselor educators to ensure that our profession is continuously moving toward culturally responsive counseling and advocacy. We hope this article is a part of that movement toward prevention and attention to social justice in our field.

 Anneliese A. Singh is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia. She is a member of the American Counseling Association and past-president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of ACA. Contact her at

Muninder Kaur Ahluwalia is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Leadership at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. She is a member of ACA. Contact her at

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