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Can You Inherit Mental Illness?

Written by Anthony Emecheta

When we talk about mental health, we often limit it to individual experiences or illnesses. However, Dr. Candace Layne, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Imagine Counseling Services said that it goes deeper than that.

Dr. Layne made several eye-popping revelations while speaking at TEDxMarshallU. According to Dr. Layne, our reactions to relationships, thinking patterns, and way of communication may be influenced by the “experiences, behaviors, oppressions or trauma” of previous generations in our families because we are all bound to our families by “threads”. However, she highlighted that these threads that link family generations can be altered or improved.

The threads that bind us to our families are interwoven like a quilt and “create the quote of life that you are living today” which sometimes may impact our mental health and overall well-being, she said.

How does generational thread impact overall health and well-being?

There are two key ways that “generational threads” can impact our overall health and wellbeing namely genetically and psychologically. Genetical impact on health and wellness should be an easy grasp. This is because every child consists of genetic materials from the father and the mother who also got theirs from their parents.

Several illnesses including heart disease, asthma, diabetes, cancer, and single gene disorders (including sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, Hemophilia, and so on) can be transferred from parents to offspring. This explains why physicians check the medical history of their patients—among other things—to know if their illness was genetically acquired.

Many genetically acquired diseases remain incurable, but scientists have either developed a cure for others or an effective way of managing them. So far, scientists have not identified a single gene as the cause of mental disorders.

However, unlike genetically acquired illnesses, Dr. Layne posits that we can acquire generational themes through communication (or lack of it) and learning trauma responses like shame, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, attachment concerns, and difficulty managing mood and emotions. 

“At times, generational threads can impact our mental health and overall well-being,” said Dr. Layne, “but we can work to create positive mental health and wellness within ourselves by creating quilts of empowerment and healing with a lasting impact on the future.”

Where does trauma leading to generational mental health issues come from?

Black adults in the diaspora—especially those who are descendants of slaves—are more likely to suffer from generational mental health trauma. This is because the trauma faced by their parents or grandparents shaped their perception, caused distrust, and fostered hurt feelings that eventually get passed down to them.

“Historical trauma and oppression can create lasting impacts on family and community generations,” said Layne. “Historical trauma includes oppression, discrimination, slavery, segregation, forced migration, and other forms of oppression.”

Sadly, some of these oppressions are still perpetrated to this day which will continue to shape the perception of the current generation and the generations to come—even when they didn’t experience the initial trauma. Dr. Layne said generational trauma can impact the “mental health and wellness of various groups of people due to stress, anxiety, depression, and other concerns related to these experiences”.

“The latest scientific research shows that the effects of trauma, historical and generational oppression, and family experiences can pass from one generation to the next. What’s been found is that even if the person who experienced the trauma or negative experience has passed away or if we are completely unaware of the traumatic experience, the effects of this trauma in our own experiences, reactions, adaptations, and even our brain responses can live from generation to generation.”

How to create generational wellness for physical and mental wellbeing

Without mincing words, Dr. Layne said that the best way to create generational wellness is by “expressing your truth, seeking help, and opening the conversation about mental health and its importance among family and friends. These can be our change agents”.

“The very tool that we can use to alter the threads that bind us with our previous generations lie within us.”

Sadly, there is still a certain stigma that comes with publicly voicing out mental health struggles in some Black communities. Consequently, some people tend to hide or try to ignore their struggles and face it on their own rather than reaching out for help. Layne said this behavior in addition to a new trauma can rip the connecting threads of generational wellness.

“In Appalachia, there’s a tendency to just keep going, be tough, be strong, ignore it,” said Dr. Layne. “As a Black woman, I often see this in my Black community and other minority communities, especially among men.”

However, Layne pointed out that by ignoring the trauma and doing nothing to heal from it, “we perpetuate the trauma and hurt and the mental health concerns of our generations”.

“When we begin to acknowledge and effectively cope with those generational occurrences and trauma, we can begin to create healing, trauma reduction, and overall positive mental health and wellness.”

Interview with Dr. Candace Layne

Elevate Black Health (EBH) caught up with Dr. Layne (CL) for more insights on generational themes and how to improve mental health awareness in Black communities. She shared some of the amazing works she has been doing in her community—a model which can be replicated in other Black communities.

EBH: You spoke about how learning generational themes can lead to mental health challenges. How can we tell the difference between learned generational themes and the ones we formed due to our personal experiences?

CL: When identifying generational themes in our lives, we will look for the themes that may be present in other family members. We cannot internalize all themes family members present as our own, but generational themes show up in our grandparents, parents, maybe even our aunts, uncles, and cousins. Themes created from our own personal experiences will primarily show up in our own lives and possibly our children’s life. Self-awareness is so important when identifying generational themes, trauma, and working on goals to create new themes, perspectives, and experiences.

EBH: Between learned generational themes and the one passed down through genetics, which should we be more worried about, or rather, which is harder to deal with?

CL: The learned generational themes may be harder to deal with in that to alter and improve behaviors it takes work and goal setting that comes within us. Some are passed down but may not be inherently learned and these are easier to identify and work through because we haven’t instilled them in our lives and behaviors. Unlearning and improving behaviors take goal setting and a solution-focused cognitive behavioral approach which can assist in identifying themes, improving self-awareness, and challenging thoughts and perspectives for behavior change.

EBH: You mentioned that the way to combat generational themes is not to ignore them but to face them head-on. What practical ways do you suggest for dealing with the stigma associated with mental health, especially in Black communities?

CL: The stigma that exists within the Black community concerning mental health is something that exists strongly in our Black community and has for generations. The first part of reducing the stigma is through education. I have witnessed firsthand how psychoeducation, resource connection, and connecting with the community through workshops, activities, and training can change the stigma and provide more understanding. It is important to be creative in this approach. For example, I have sponsored barbershop and salon chats in local black owned businesses. Food, mental health information, and speakers are invited to discuss mental health at the barbershop and salon. We do this during the day when people are coming in to get haircuts and their hair done. These have become popular events in the local community in Huntington and local barbers have been asking for more barbershop chats! This is exciting.  Learning more about our bodies and minds creates insight and changes perspectives. But the education doesn’t have to just come from professionals. Educating our own family members about mental health, opening up about mental health experiences, and educating about resources can be very beneficial in reducing the stigma which creates a decrease in fear, distrust, and apprehension towards the fields of mental and behavioral health.

EBH: We recently published a post titled, “How church can positively impact mental health”. Are there missed opportunities for dealing with mental health challenges that you see in Black communities?

CL: The Black church is a perfect place to promote positive mental health and provide mental health psychoeducation and resource information. The Black church has been a pillar of the Black community for years, with the ability to reach many. It is important for Black churches to focus on the health, wellness, and mental health of the Black community. Offering resource connection, workshops, and speakers during services can be an important tool. It is important for the pastor and other leaders to support mental health and find it important to educate the congregation about mental health. It is also important for the Pastor and other church leaders to incorporate the spiritual side of mental health and the importance of taking care of our “temple,” which is our body in the Bible. At my church in Huntington, West Virginia, Antioch Missionary Baptist, our pastor Rev. Shawn Woods is very supportive of mental health awareness and every year we have a mental health and suicide prevention Sunday. Speakers are invited and information is disseminated to the congregation about local mental health information. It is important for more churches to host such activities.

For more resources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK115605

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Inheriting-Mental-Disorders.aspx

DeAngelis, T. (2019). The legacy of trauma. American Psychological Association (50)2. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/02/legacy-trauma

Zimmerman, R. (2013). How does trauma spill from one generation to the next? The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/2023/06/12/generational-trauma-passed-healing/

APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/intergenerational-trauma

Boland, M., Ryder, G., White, T. (2022). How intergenerational trauma impacts families. https://psychcentral.com/lib/how-intergenerational-trauma-impacts-families

Kubala, K., Raypole, C. (2022). Understanding intergenerational trauma and its effects. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/intergenerational-trauma

Yehuda, R., Lehrner, A. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry (17)3. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6127768/

Columbia Zuckerman Institute. (2019). Neuroscience and the study of intergenerational trauma: How does the remote past get under our skin? Retrieved from https://zuckermaninstitute.columbia.edu/neuroscience-and-study-intergenerational-trauma-how-does-remote-past-get-under-our-skin

About the author

Anthony Emecheta

Anthony Emecheta holds a master’s degree in microbiology. He is a passionate educator and particularly an advocate of racial equality. He strongly believes the world will be a better place if we all see ourselves as humans first before anything else.

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