For decades, family therapists and other mental health professionals and researchers have believed that trauma in one generation can be expressed in the genetic code and passed as psychological suffering and vulnerability in following generations. This fact has been demonstrated in animal studies for years, but few human trials have followed.
A research team at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, studying the DNA and mental health of survivors of World War II Nazi atrocities and their children, have newly demonstrated genetic changes in the children of these survivors. The Guardian article of August 21, 2015 describes the changes in a specific gene sequence associated with the regulation of stress hormones. What therapists have seen in their practices has begun to be proven in the laboratory: when emotional and mental trauma happens to us in our early life, it can change our genes, and those changes can be passed down to our children.
It helps to explain the increased mental health issues in children of Holocaust survivors, victims of political terror, accidental trauma, severe poverty, famine and the progeny of African slaves in the United States. This “epigenetic inheritance” can linger for generations and effect the culture, as it has done in the Jewish communities around the world after 1945.
The continuing hurt, vulnerability, anger and rage expressed in the African American community in the United States against the majority white community can be understood as both cry for justice in the present, and a echo of generational trauma that was endured for nearly 300 years on our nation’s shores.
We have a responsibility as a nation to be struggling to heal the racial injustice and majority privilege that still stains our daily interactions. And therapists need to recognize the layers of trauma that their clients of color may bring to their offices, seeking healing for individual pain that may have been generations in the making.