Acknowledging the Mental Health Traumas Our Mothers Passed Down
May was Mental Health Awareness month and Mother’s Day was on May 8th – two differing themes, yet if you think about it, so tightly knit together.
Mental Health is a subject all too often ignored by the African American community, and your Mother is one of the first to teach you about this subject. Whether it be through her actions or her words, through the impact of both, lack of both, or somewhere in between, this is your first introduction. No matter which one applies to you, it is important to be aware of this impact. Whether you consider yourself one of the few who gained an adequate amount of mental health literacy or someone who yearns for more, the amount of mental awareness that can be, had overflows in almost every aspect of daily life. And you could always stand to take a spoonful more.
I learned this, this past spring semester, when I took an African American Literature course. Our class studied various books, analyzed the era each was created in, the purpose of the writing, and the impact that it had on the African American community. Understanding the lack of discussion around mental health passed down from generation to generation in the African American community and being able to explore the content and context of some of the most highly acclaimed African American writers allowed me to gain a new perspective. Through exploring stories like Tori Morrison’s “Sula,” Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” and Charles Chestnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth,” I was allowed room to not only reflect on the various instances that have affected the African American community socially, but how we were and are affected mentally. A common theme in all of these stories is survival, a theme that the African American community knows so well. Yet, an even deeper theme reflected on but not fully addressed by each of the characters in these stories is the effect that all of this “survival” had on their mental health.
If we take a moment to focus on the character of Eva in Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” this was a woman who went above and beyond to survive and did just the same to ensure the survival of her children. In a lot of ways Eva, overcame. She did well for herself, her children, and all the people she was able to help along the way. However, an important aspect to explore about her character is her struggle to deal with the mental impact that this survival had on her. Eva’s lack of dealing with her trauma, while doing so many great and helpful things for herself and others, led her down a dark path, essentially killing her son because of her own mental inability to deal with his addiction. Given, yes, there wasn’t adequate research, access to things like therapy, or even acknowledgment of the lack of mental health awareness back then. The point is more so paying attention to the trauma Eva accumulated by doing what was essential – surviving – and the toll that survival took on her mental health, leading to her more heinous decisions.
This Trauma, Eva’s trauma, your trauma, your mama’s trauma, her mama’s trauma, and so on lead us down the path of generational trauma. Unaddressed. Raw. Naked. Suppressed. The need for survival has always been there, passed down from generation to generation. The trauma from that survival screams to be unraveled. We are screaming for answers, for the truth and change, but before all that comes acknowledgment and awareness of the existence of mental health issues that have stared us in the face. It lurks on the face of the youngest child of 3 who stands up to her father after her first beating, and says “no more, the trauma stops here.” And when that very same child chooses to begin thinking about her mental health and of her father’s and how it all has been perpetuated. And when that child, chooses to exclaim and proclaim her homosexuality as valid and screams “no more” to the acceptance of the closeted behavior that was forced down the throats of the loved ones that came before her.
Speaking on the existence of the hidden is key. Pointing out the pain.
I wasn’t sure how I wanted to fully address the topic of generationally ignoring mental health and how our mothers play into that because my mother and I have recently started to rekindle our deteriorated relationship. As happy as I am to be speaking to her again, I can’t help but acknowledge the fact that while we are speaking about things, there is so much that we aren’t. I understand that certain topics are taboo and will take time to be spoken about, but while that is true, some topics are outright being ignored. Like my sexuality, for example, a part of it is out of respect for the boundaries which I requested but another part has to do with the generational habit of ignoring the trauma.
I say all this to say: it’s time to build a new foundation and talk about the situations that have been cutting us so deep. We so easily point out our lineage, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, but so often forget to share the important stories of the trauma that we all came from. No matter how gruesome or painful, we must speak on it and acknowledge it, and speak about the things that are hurting us now. This is what last month has been all about: talking about the trauma so as not to continue to perpetuate it. Let the trauma from generations past stop now and speak about the pain we feel now, so that there’s a great deal less trauma and pain for generations to come.