If trauma can be passed down through generations, so can joy
Psychotherapist and author Lola Jaye explains that although the issue of racism is more embedded in society’s consciousness, the effects of historical and systemic racism are still having far-reaching effects on the mental health of Black people.
My role as a psychotherapist and historical fiction author means I get to write about racism in a historical context, whilst seeing first-hand how it can affect us in the present day.
The last 18 months may have shone a global spotlight on the COVID-19 pandemic, but the ‘topic’ of racism wasn’t far behind. Whether it be the Black Lives Matter protests, tearing down statues of slave traders, or the vicious racial abuse of three footballers who missed penalties during the Euros, the issue of racism has more recently become embedded in the nation’s consciousness.
Yet, before this worldwide acceptance, there’d always been a problem. Black people were used to enduring a silent pain in order to simply ‘live’ - whether this meant having to endure ‘well meaning’ racist jokes, microaggressions or being denied opportunities based on the colour of their skin. And now with it suddenly thrust into the public sphere, with hours of debate and online discussions, this public acceptance of their reality, simply allowed feelings to re-surface; such as powerlessness, anxiety, anger and intense bouts of exhaustion. Black people were tired. They’d had to live with racial inequalities and injustices every day of their life, regardless of whether racism had made the news that week or not.
Internalised racism lies within individuals and private beliefs and biases, including: prejudice towards others of a different race; and internalised privilege - beliefs about superiority or entitlement. Individual racism is insidious, unconsciously shaping belief systems, attitudes and ultimately decisions. For a complete understanding of racism, we also need to look at the term ‘systemic racism’, developed by Joe Feagin. Systemic racism affirms that ‘racism is embedded in all social institutions, structures, and social relations. It is composed of co-dependent racist institutions, policies, practices, ideas, and behaviours that give an unjust resources, rights, and power to white people’ – at the same time denying them to Black people.
Microaggressions can also be very damaging both in the outside world and inside the therapist’s consulting room. Described as; ‘A statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group such as a racial or ethnic minority.’ For example, to be constantly told ‘you have good English’ when England is your place of birth, to being followed around a shop on the assumption of being a criminal (this has happened to me on numerous occasions). ‘Microaggressions are a clinically relevant factor in understanding mental health problems.’ It has also been described as ‘the new face of racism’. (Sue, et al, 2007).
With psychotherapeutic interventions, research shows that a Black client’s lived experience regarding racism and the trauma associated with it – racial trauma - can be misinterpreted by a therapist and can lead to dangerous misdiagnoses. If we look at the independent review of the UK’s Mental Health Act in 2018, “profound inequalities” were found to exist. This highlighted that Black British people were four times more likely to be sectioned than white people and just as alarmingly, more likely to be administered a psychoactive medication instead of a talking therapy.
Medication may treat symptoms associated with mental illness but the absence of a talking therapy leaves underlying issues unaddressed.
The Theory of Generational Trauma
Psychotherapists generally acknowledge that a client may have a reaction to recent events which have roots in the past. When it comes to racism, whether it be systemic, individual or internalised, it can influence psychological and social trauma passed down from previous generations. My own parents arrived in the UK during the ‘60s to “No Blacks, No dogs, No Irish” signs, and there are many more stories, members from that generation and before, can recite. But, listening to these traumatic stories of survival can condition a Black person from an early age to believe their own immediate world is a threatening one – something that is then reinforced by their own interactions with society, whether this be linked to racism or microaggressions.
If trauma is described as an experience that happens in a person's life resulting in serious physical, mental, or emotional harm and causing them to feel out of control of the situation, then racial trauma should also be viewed in a similar way.
This means at the very least acknowledging the psychological effects of racial trauma being transferred from one generation to another. This can be allowed to continue due to unawareness of the impact, but also through the stigma related to accessing help with mental health - something which has also been passed down due to the horrific treatment of Black people by the medical community in the past. Such mistrust may also need to be acknowledged between therapist and client.
PTSS / PTSD
Author and researcher Joy DeGruy used the term Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) to describe the enduring effects Black people are experiencing. While PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) results from a single direct or indirect trauma, PTSS asserts that Black people globally have suffered collective grief and trauma over the years and subsequent generations.
This explains “the consequences of multigenerational oppression from centuries of chattel slavery and institutionalised racism, and identifies the resulting adaptive survival behaviours.”
Continual global news coverage in the summer of 2020, constantly showing the murder of a Black person felt brutalising and reinforced embedded belief systems, that Black people are ‘less than.’ It is both distressing and dehumanising, and when the person looks like you, there are added implications for mental health.
This re-experiencing of racial trauma can lead to depression, hyper-vigilance, chronic stress and fatigue, bodily inflammation and symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. It is unsurprising that during the summer of 2020 some Black therapists saw an increase in enquiries.
So what can Black people do to limit the effects of racial trauma?
Being open to the possibility that generational trauma is real and can exist is a good starting point for both therapist and client.
Whether you are still attempting to uncover more and more about how the past is affecting your future, it’s possible to do the work now, by being mindful of what’s possibly being created and perpetuated. Start with your family members, tribes, circle (whatever that looks like). Then it can become possible to address what’s been handed down, before deciding what’s worth keeping and what to release.
Limit social media
This may seem obvious, but the addictive nature of swiping online may be an avenue to absorb what’s ‘good’ out there, but also what is both negative and toxic. It is important to be mindful of what we allow into our ‘selves’ and space and maintain a healthy balance, especially when there's already a pot of emotions regarding past and current experiences.
Give yourself permission to do nothing. For example, as a Black woman, it’s easy to fall into the popular ‘superwoman’ narrative and take on a deluge of anti-racism work, whilst taking care of families, work etc. However, for the sake of managing your mental health, it’s important to do so in a way that doesn’t seek to constantly re-traumatise and subsequently cause that exhaustion related to racial trauma. Whatever is decided as a means of action or protest - whether this be marching or funding a charitable organisation – mental wellbeing must be paramount.
Be your own supporter/cheerleader
This can be done daily by developing a strong sense of ethnic identity; educating yourself on a history that does not solely rest on the negative, but also embraces the positive aspects of who you are. Allow yourself to embrace YOU, including the rich and varied history, languages, food, traditions and customs which come with being a Black person. Be kind to yourself!
Carve out a safe space
A place you are allowed to switch off and not have to be anything to anyone. What and where this is, will differ from person to person and can range from reading for an hour a day, gardening, running, to calling a friend - anything that gives you pleasure, whilst transporting you away from the inevitable realities of a world in which there is limited control.
If it’s affordable, long term psychotherapy and counselling is a great way to unpack racial and generational trauma. If you prefer a therapist with the same cultural and ethnic background to yourself, but have difficulty finding one, this isn’t the end of the story. Just as there’s a belief that a ‘good’ therapist should have been or is in therapy, it’s fair to believe that one who has learnt and studied the impact of systemic racism on their clients, can work very well.
It’s important not to place everyone in a single ‘BAME’ box. The lived experience of say, an Asian therapist will be different to that of a Black client. Experiences of people of colour do vary and should be respected.
It’s fair to assume that if trauma can be passed down through generations, so can joy.
Seek to develop a strong sense of ethnic identity that can involve educating yourself on the history of your culture not based solely on negatives, but which also celebrates the positive. African history did not begin with slavery, it was interrupted by it.
- Rethink Mental Illness – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) mental health
- The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN)
- Therapy for Black Girls
- Mind’s Young Black Men Programme
- British Asian Trust
- 100 Black Men of London
- NHS Every Mind Matters
Lola Jaye is an author, registered psychotherapist and speaker who has penned six novels and a self-help book. She was born and raised in London, England and has lived in Nigeria and the United States. She has written for CNN, HuffPost and the BBC and is currently writing her new novel The Attic Child (Pan Macmillan) to be released in 2022.