A movement to diversify therapy has drawn more attention to the issue of intergenerational trauma.
Intergenerational trauma can impact family lines for years and this knowledge is vital in the counseling field. When ancestors are victims of horrific historical events, such as war, natural disasters, extreme poverty or slavery, their pain and suffering not only affects their offspring by word of mouth, posttraumatic stress, and attitude and personality changes but by actual changes to a family’s DNA. Because of these environmental and biological changes, intergenerational trauma influences mental and physical health. It can lead to mood disorders and require trauma-informed care to get to the root of a person’s core conflict. It can also lead to heart issues, cancer, chronic pain, hypertension, diabetes, and kidney disease as well as other serious illnesses.
When the pandemic hit, it quickly became apparent that the virus presented more severely in minorities. Moreover, the death of George Floyd ignited the Black Lives Matter movement, opening the door for Black communities to voice their intergenerational struggles. These major societal events not only lead to mental health de-stigmatization and an influx of individuals going to therapy, but to the realization that therapists need to be able to adequately address intergenerational trauma.
Meanwhile, therapy has been a predominantly white career path in the United States with “‘80% of psychologists, 63% of counselors and 59% of social workers” identifying as white, according to Data USA, a site with public federal data. Although multicultural counseling is commonly emphasized in master’s degree counseling programs, without diversity in the field it makes it difficult to put these principles into practice.
Cambodian American Eden Teng, who was born in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Cambodia, moved with her family to the U.S. at age six. Her mom and aunt, who made the trip with her, were survivors of the Cambodia genocide. She internalized their resilience, and when she became an adult, she became determined to be a therapist.
“In first-generation or second-generation Cambodian Americans, there’s this experience that your parents have sacrificed or have gone through so much,” she said. “They’ve experienced tremendous loss. And having that sense of their sacrifices, we feel we need to hold that harm and that grief and that pain.”
Researchers have noted that that mental health services have marginalized the experiences of people of color and that microaggressions are, unfortunately, common. Many immigrants report not seeking help because of language barriers, not having sufficient insurance and high costs. Thus, Teng took pride in joining a growing movement of mental health professionals hoping to transform the field..
“I think the best way to describe decolonized therapy is that it is really making space to examine the external pressures, stressors, and layers of oppression that my clients have endured and survived,” Teng said.
She gives the example of microaggressions in the workplace and how this translates to the counseling field, saying, “There are opportunities that are not given to you because of your identities. But if we look at it through the lens of self-esteem, it’s like ‘Something is wrong with you. You just need to think better about yourself,’ right? Like you need to be more positive.”
Despite all of the advances that have been made in the past century or so, in many areas, the U.S. still has a long way to go when it comes to eliminating racism and discrimination.
“The challenge,” Teng explained, “is to recognize that how you’re feeling about yourself can also be internalized oppression…There’s no way that we can just say that we’re going to look at this from a cultural lens without actually looking through the historical, intergenerational lens. And so, it has to be comprehensive and interconnected for it to truly honor the human being that is in front of you.”