Trauma Has Trickled Down for Generations*
How symptoms of mental illness manifest in Black women, and the steps you can take toward healing.
By Angela Fichter
The shooting death of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant mother of four, by Seattle police has brought anger and criticism yet again of the way police engage African Americans. The Seattle Police Department’s history of using excessive force and employing discriminatory practices against Black Seattleites prompted the 2011 U.S. Justice Department investigation into the SPD’s conduct, resulting in court-ordered reforms. In 2015, the SPD began training officers in crisis intervention for people with behavioral problems, but a pattern of criminalizing Black people persists.
Lyles called 911 on June 18 to report a break-in. Police say officers killed her because she had confronted them with a knife. The Lyles family says she was battling a recently discovered mental illness.
That doesn’t surprise Jennifer Henderson, a Seattle-based licensed mental health counselor with a special focus on Black mental health.
In 1925, Fred Goree, a brick mason and manager in the Negro Baseball League, was killed in St. Louis by White policemen on his way to a baseball game. Goree, who was 33 years old, was stopped in his brand-new Buick for allegedly speeding. When he protested for being unjustly targeted, he was beaten to death on a public street, shot twice, and left in a ditch. Black and White witnesses provided conflicting statements, and the officers were never convicted. He was the primary breadwinner for his family, which included his wife, three children, his mother, and 13 siblings.
Henderson is Goree’s granddaughter. Though she never knew her grandfather, she’s felt the impact of trauma throughout her personal life, including through her mother, whom she described as “guarded, emotionally cold, and disconnected at times.”
Henderson explains how trauma disproportionately impacts Black women and the steps they can take to heal.
Angela Fichter: How does trauma uniquely impact Black women?
Jenny Henderson: Black women start with a level of trauma that we’ve inherited genetically. The trickle-down effect of slavery, discrimination and oppression, in addition to the ongoing trauma we experience in our neighborhoods, including police brutality, has a compound effect.
Our basic family structure has been undermined over the years because our men have been removed from the family. [They’re] incarcerated at larger numbers for longer periods of time, often due to no behavior or fault of their own. That leaves many of us without the financial or emotional support we might otherwise have.
Fichter: How do symptoms of mental illness manifest in Black women?
Henderson: We definitely see symptoms of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and a heightened state of anxiety, tension, and fear … explosive anger with little or no provocation. It can be what you call hyper-vigilance, where a person is very much aware, or even frightened, of the environment, constantly [questioning] if there’s a dangerous situation to be aware of.
How many times have we seen an angry mom, throwing her kids around, cursing at them? This could likely be related to racial trauma they’ve [personally] experienced—racism in the workplace and out in the world.
Fichter: What about the “angry Black woman” stereotype?
Henderson: And why is she so angry? She’s angry because oftentimes she’s been traumatized firsthand, within the family, and through intergenerational trauma [trauma passed down through generations]. She may have been treated aggressively by the police, or is facing domestic violence or sexual abuse. So, naturally her ability to regulate her emotions is going to be drastically decreased. You see mood swings and angry, defensive behavior.
Women tend to internalize emotions and are more likely to be depressed in the way the trauma or dysfunction manifests; but with males, they tend to outwardly express emotion in a way that is socially acceptable for them, which is anger.
Fichter: How has repeated exposure to trauma impacted intimacy within Black communities?
Henderson: It comes back to trust—the ability to have faith in another person, to be open, and allow oneself to be vulnerable in sharing love, communicating emotion, and being completely transparent and honest.
Oftentimes, Black women do not have a partner at all, and when they do, there’s baggage because of the experiences of being slighted, missed opportunities, and having to go above and beyond just to be considered good enough. All of that impacts our relationships. It adds a heaviness to our heart that causes difficulty interacting with one another in a positive, loving, peaceful way.
Fichter: What are ways young Black girls can address self-care before an emotional or mental state spirals out of control?
Henderson: Prevention. Mentoring is incredibly important, and I don’t think it should wait until there’s a problem. There are groups and agencies, but many very seldom recruit or maintain mentors of color, and mentors [have to] have a sense of what these kids go through in life—what would motivate and inspire them, and what things to be cautious of during the mentoring process.
[My] son had a White mentor, who built a large high-powered motor toy gun, painted it grey, then took him out in public to shoot Nerf pellets at various targets.
That could have ended up tragically, just like Tamir Rice. These mentors need some training on those appropriate interactions. But with that education, mentoring can be an incredibly powerful tool to guide people in the right direction when they need it.
[In addition to community stigma, Henderson acknowledges the history of racism in the medical and health fields that has prevented many African Americans from seeking mental health care. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which monitors mental health service utilization among patients over 18, only around 8.6% of Black Americans used services, compared to 17.1% of Whites, between 2008 and 2012.
Black psychologists make up less than 6 percent of the nation’s practicing psychologists, but are growing in number, and most of them are women. Younger generations of African Americans are beginning to change their attitudes toward addressing mental health, and Henderson is starting to see younger patients.]
Fichter: What are your top three tips for Black women and girls struggling with their emotions and mental health?
Henderson: First and foremost, she should do everything within her power to learn about the greatness we come from, and the history of accomplishments excluded from our history books. [She must know] she comes from greatness and is capable and able to achieve greatness.
Reach out for help to everybody she can possibly think of: teachers, mentors, tutors, counselors at school, other women, and mental health agencies. Ask for what she needs, and if she doesn’t know what that is, she can still reach out and say,
“I need something, but I don’t know what it is. Can you help me figure it out?
I feel like I’m not enough, can do better, like I can be happier, and I don’t know how to do it.”
If she reaches out to somebody who can’t or doesn’t want to help, she shouldn’t stop there, but continue until she finds that support.
Trust your intuition. Learn how to tune in, listen, and follow it. Consistently, without exception, it will guide us toward what’s best and right for us, and toward opportunities that are better. Sometimes we need to leave where we are and listen to our intuition to know where we need to go.
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