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Although the 13th Amendment of the Constitution outlawed slavery, its effect on Black people still lingers today. Racism continues to plague American society and the descendants of people who were enslaved experience “intergenerational trauma.” Intergenerational trauma refers to trauma of one generation that impacts following generations, often manifesting as higher levels of certain physical and mental illnesses within those generations. Throughout American history, Black people have faced countless hardships, including but not limited to slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and mass incarceration. These events are so traumatizing that Black people have passed down that trauma from generation to generation, and families have been forced to continuously cope with and heal from their ancestors’ traumatic pasts.
Intergenerational trauma exemplifies how nature and nurture affect people. Those who experienced a certain form of trauma are more likely to constantly experience the “fight or flight” response because of a constant fear that something will go wrong. In turn, these increased levels of anxiety affect how parents raise their kids and become learned behavior in the kids, resulting in a cyclical passing of the trauma from generation to generation.
Trauma can also affect the epigenome, or the way in which biological factors impact how genes are expressed. For example, scientists have found that children who experienced famine while in utero weighed more than average, due to a gene regulating the burning of body fat “turning off” because of the famine the mother experienced. As a result, these children had higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels, leading to an increased rate of obesity, stroke, heart disease, and schizophrenia. The traumatic stress that the mother experienced resulted in repression of certain genes in her child, indicating that the effects of a certain traumatic event can pass onto the next generation. In this example, there is not a direct mutation that caused the regulatory gene involved in fat breakdown to change. Instead, because of an environmental condition, the gene was not expressed, possibly due to an addition or removal of a chemical tag.
Certain diseases are more prevalent in the Black community due to intergenerational trauma. According to a CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) study, 75% of Black people had developed high blood pressure at the conclusion of the study, compared to 50% of white men and 40% of white women. Historically, Black people have undergone major stress as a result of slavery and racism, resulting in overall higher blood pressure. This increase in stress also causes higher rates of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and mental illnesses.
Intergenerational trauma has both a physical and mental effect on families. In terms of parenting, intergenerational trauma can affect the parent-child relationship. For example, because people who were enslaved in the United States during the 1700s and 1800s did not have access to mental health professionals, they could not cope with or heal from trauma that well. This lack of healing passed on the trauma from generation to generation, causing Black people today to still feel the effects of slavery and racism on a subconscious level. Although the proportion of Black people who experience mental illness is relatively similar to the white counterpart, modern treatment for mental health only recently started to acknowledge the importance of intergenerational trauma.
Due to racial disparities, often seen through higher rates of incarceration or violence from police and other law enforcement directed towards the Black community, Black people have faced many traumatic experiences that continue to perpetuate the harsh trauma from slavery. This increase in trauma is directly correlated to higher rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other emotional distress or mental illnesses. Past and present racism have a direct impact on an individual’s psyche even if they do not directly witness negative effects. Therefore, mental health professionals must consider the historical trauma of Black people in order to fully understand the nuances within their mental health.
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