Intergenerational trauma is 'pain' passed down generations, hurting Black people's health

Host Farah Nasser talks with mental health advocate and clinical therapist Asante Haughton about intergenerational trauma, microaggressions as well as some self-care tips for Black Canadians.

Some Black parents teach their children never to lose a receipt in case you’re accused of stealing or to keep your hands out of your pocket so they are visible to those around you.

These are just some of the lessons Black people may tell their children to keep them safe from violence linked to anti-Black racism, said Myrna Lashley, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at McGill University in Montreal.

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But the need to constantly remind Black children about how society treats them is a traumatizing experience for the child and the parent, said Lashley.

This ongoing process is known as intergenerational trauma and it impacts Black communities.

“Intergenerational trauma is trauma that is passed down. The pain and the angst and the hurt and the fear and…. the sense of inferiority that has been imposed on you,” she said.

These issues stem from having to live with daily harm due to racism from multiple places, including people, institutions, businesses and more, she said.

The weight of intergenerational trauma on Black people can lead to a myriad of health issues, from mental health to physical health. Often, there is a lack of spaces within health care and wellness for Black people to seek help, experts told Global News.

‘Constant pressure’ on Black communities

Lashley says this kind of trauma also turns your body into a weapon against yourself through constant reminders of your value. You’re told your hair isn’t the right texture, your skin colour isn’t the right skin colour and some beauty companies do not create shades that match you.

Concerns that white people will see you as a threat simply by existing, or being labelled ‘angry’ if you call out racism, is also passed down, she said.

Lashley says that even as a distinguished professor, some are often surprised at her intelligence and compliment her for being “well-spoken.”

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Then there are physical and mental effects from these issues, including cardiovascular problems, addiction, obesity and diabetes, along with high stress, depression and anger, she said.

“It’s this constant pressure… having to convince white folks that you are as good, that you have a short period in a boardroom to get across to them that I am as intelligent as anybody else here, I’m not here to wash your floors,” said Lashley.

Tackling trauma through therapy

Kristin Winchester, a licensed professional council based in Washington, D.C., says using therapy is one way intergenerational trauma can be addressed. But the concept of mental health and wellness can be stigmatized in the Black community, she said.

“That stigma holds people back from really seeking out the help that they need,” she said. “A lot of time people experienced increased mental health issues within our communities because there’s so much trauma happening, post-slavery… there’s been so much generational trauma passed down.”

Cycles are created when help isn’t accessible for people who need it, said Winchester. Many may feel isolated and depressed due to intergenerational trauma and are not seeking the help they need, she said.

There’s an absence of culturally appropriate resources in Canada that are for Black communities, according to the Black Health Alliance, a charity focused on the health of Black Canadians.

In Ontario, people of Caribbean, East and West African origin have a 60 per cent increased risk of psychosis, according to the group. Black Ontarians of Caribbean descent also have two times the delay in accessing services compared to white people, according to the group.

Black people also need mental health professionals trained very well in cultural competence to create culturally safe spaces, Lashley said.

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“Our concept of mental health, all the theories we use are mostly white. What we’ve got to do more and more is to make sure our psychology students are trained in all aspects… and cultural ways of understanding,” said Lashley. “So when people need help, they feel safe.”

Systems of oppression cannot be dismantled overnight

Winchester recommends Black people sit down and examine how they feel to assess the impacts of day-to-day trauma and microaggressions on their mental health.

Have those conversations with family, friends and your community to start sharing experiences and how they have impacted you over the years, she said.

The system of oppression that day-to-day racism comes from will not change overnight, so addressing trauma through therapy is how Winchester recommends individuals approach the topic.

Shanelle McKenzie, co-founder of The Villij, a Toronto-based mental health and wellness initiative for women of colour, says Black people are impacted by intergenerational trauma daily.

“A lot of us are first-generation Canadians, and we often learn to balance our cultural expectations and the first world pressures,” she said via email to Global News. “It can drain us and we can’t often express how we feel to our families because of their lack of understanding when it comes to mental health issues since it’s taboo.”

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It’s not easy to feign always being strong at work and at home, so millennials have started to look at therapy and other self-care practices to make sense of this trauma, said McKenzie.

With their wellness space catered to women of colour, safety and access are the most pressing barriers to finding trauma-informed health professionals who are culturally competent, said Kim Knight, the other co-founder of The Villij.

Kim Knight and Shanelle McKenzie are the founders of The Villij, a mental health and wellness space for women of colour. Photo by Kenya Meon.

Kim Knight and Shanelle McKenzie are the founders of The Villij, a mental health and wellness space for women of colour. Photo by Kenya Meon.

Photo by Kenya Meon

“Where do we go to find therapists or yoga teachers that will uphold the significance of our racial trauma?” she said. “We are misunderstood in the doctor’s office, hospitals, therapist chair and on the yoga mat.”

Affordable therapy is also a major concern, said Knight. One of their community members recently shared with them that their office only covers therapists they’ve listed, and there are no Black mental health professionals on that list, she said.

Although the process of healing from racial trauma is “long and arduous,” there are steps that can be taken and resources available to help, said Knight.

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She recommends accessing a list of Black therapists compiled by Black Girl Feels, a mental health community for Black women. Knight also suggests those in the Toronto area connect with services like TAIBU Community Health Centre, a non-profit that helps to provide primary health care to Black communities.

Building a support network and engaging with organizations that are for Black people specifically can help in finding spaces where you are believed and supported, she said.

“Representation is paramount. There is something powerful about being in a space amongst people that get you and know the significance of your trauma,” said McKenzie.

“We’ve seen and been through a lot, so oftentimes being amongst like bodies and minds can aid in the acceleration of our healing.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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