Young Minds Matter: Historical and Cultural Trauma

By Nia West-Bey 

“Is like, everything alright with our people?” -Young Adult, 2018

2019 marks 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to what would become the United States. 2019 is also a year where our national conversation has struggled to reconcile the caging of young people in inhumane conditions and the separation of children from their parents on the Southwest border with our national narrative as a “nation of immigrants.” What does this historical inflection point and national crisis have to do with young minds?

Everything, it turns out.

Historical trauma refers to a complex and collective trauma experienced over time and across generations by a group of people who share an identity, affiliation, or circumstance. Cultural trauma is a related concept and occurs when members of a group feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks on their group consciousness, forever marking their memories and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways. Both historical and cultural trauma are lasting legacies of oppression identified by young adults in underserved communities as substantial threats to their mental health.

My colleagues and I held focus groups with young people from “small and hard to reach communities”—i.e. communities such as Native American; rural; and Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander (AANHPI) whose numbers are often too small in nationally representative samples to be considered reliable, or who belong to groups that are likely to be undercounted by conventional sampling methods. We wanted to learn about their perspectives on mental health.

One of the key takeaways from these focus groups was that for many young people across the country, yesterday’s traumas threaten today’s mental health. Young people, particularly young people of color, spoke passionately and poignantly about how events from decades ago — acts of war in the Pacific during World War II, forced confiscation of land in the mid-20th century, centuries of injustice perpetrated against Native people — are meaningful forces in the lives of young peoples’ families and communities in the here and now. Young people described the loss of connection to their culture as having devastating consequences for their communities, forcing young adults to grapple with the meaning of culture in their lives and families. The haunting question that leads this blog post, “Is everything alright with our people?’” succinctly captures the self-doubt generated in an oppressive context where one’s culture and identity are systematically devalued by the dominant culture.

Having the language to understand these traumas is a necessary healing tool for young people. This language is particularly missing from the narratives of African-American young people, who are told to “get over” slavery and “that was a long time ago.” Rarely do we engage young people in conversations that acknowledge the historical trauma imposed by slavery, racial terror campaigns after Reconstruction, and Jim Crow segregation. How can young people today understand the full context of today’s community-level challenges including violence, poverty, police brutality, and disinvestment without the long historical arc that has brought about these conditions? What tools are we offering young people to heal from these injustices when their people were systematically stripped of their culture?

Strengthening our communities and our commitment to each other with an understanding of our unique and shared historical traumas has the potential to dismantle the structures that perpetuate trauma in our communities. Right now, as you read this blog, the government of the United States is perpetuating what will be the historical and cultural trauma of this generation, and generations 50 or 100 years from now. As we gather at Young Minds Matter to focus on community connections for well-being as a path to healing, I challenge everyone to think about how we can gift all young people with the language to understand their experiences through the lens of historical and cultural trauma. I also challenge us to think about how lessons from the past can help us to interrupt historical and cultural trauma for future generations. Finally, we must engage in serious dialogue about the role of policy changes and investments in righting the wrongs of the past to achieve healing.

This blog was originally posted by The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and is republished with permission