HISTORY, A DETERMINANT OF HEALTH: Intergenerational Trauma

No matter who you are or where you are from, your history is important. Some may say that the past cannot define who you are, but it can certainly shape who you become and linger in the steps of your future. James Baldwin once wrote that,

“the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us and are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways.”

Just as he states, history can often dictate our experiences and in many ways, it can transcend time and impact our present. During an interview with the AMA Journal of Ethics, Dr. Nancy Krieger, a professor of social epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explained that “experiences of injustice can become ’embodied’ in individuals and populations, producing negative health effects that last a lifetime“. In layman’s terms, it is possible that the experiences and perhaps traumas of the past can be passed downed from one generation to another and wreck havoc on descendants. From the high suicide rates within Aboriginal communities to the increased risk of inherited PTSD among Holocaust survivors, and the consistent health disparities in the Black community, history seems to have profound health implications that have outlived its social injustices.

Many studies have proposed that there may be a biological link between intergenerational trauma and the health outcomes of particular populations. Without diving too much into scientific jargon, researchers have found that environmentally induced traumas can result in epigenomic changes. This means that there are elements in our experiences that can actually affect the way our bodies read our DNA. These are called epigenetic changes. They impact how our genes are regulated and expressed, and they can make us more susceptible to certain diseases or health habits. Sometimes in conjunction with other factors, they can even determine how we relate with others, ourselves, and the world around us.

In a study by the biochemist, Rachel Yehuda, it was found that the children of male Holocaust survivors with PTSD had significantly lower levels of cortisol (a very important hormone that regulates stress) than the normal threshold. Seeing as low levels of cortisol are associated with the increased risk of PTSD, this study provided evidence that the experiences from the Holocaust resulted in epigenetic changes that were passed down to descendants.

In another aspect of intergenerational trauma, a study by Pat Dudgeon, a professor at the University of Western Australia, implied that the colonization of Native people through the forced separation of families, where children were brutally separated from their parents, have impacted how love and affection are displayed and expressed in these communities thus influencing the behaviors and familial relations of descending generations. This has led to members within these communities having difficulty managing emotions and turning to substances to repress them. This has resulted in increases in abuse, violence, and struggles with mental illness and suicide.

In the American context, one of the most crucial displays of intergenerational trauma within the Black community can be traced back to the Tuskegee Syphilis study. The study began in 1932 with over 500 poor Black men from Macon County, Alabama. The men were under the impression that were receiving treatment for their syphilis where in fact they were actually being studied to see if syphilis progressed differently in Black people than in White people. Although there was more than enough access to penicillin (the treatment for syphilis), the researchers did not treat any of the men and it is believed that up to a 100 men may have died from the disease during the study. Those who did survive unknowingly ended up infecting “their wives and children through congenital exposure.” Its been almost 90 years since this unethical study was conducted but it is still having intergenerational impacts.

In a study conducted by Tina Sacks and several other researchers, it was found that direct descendants of the men in the TS study have deep distrust for the medical system with many refusing to receive healthcare from white doctors out of fear of what happened with their great-grandfathers. This same fear and step of caution can be seen in the black community in general. In reference to Dr. Nancy Krieger, research has also shown that “being born under Jim Crow laws has had lasting negative effects on infant mortality, premature mortality and even breast cancer rates among Black Americans“.

History is important. It holds power and its influences can travel through time. Our bodies can carry our histories, and our experiences can outlive the events that cultivated them. As we say goodbye to February and step into March, take some time to think about how your history and background has formed your experiences and how you relate to the world around you. It could be how you deal with mental health, how you interact with your healthcare system, or even how you process negative experiences. As we continue to dive into this series, we encourage you to do some exploring of your own and engage in conversations surrounding these topics. Perhaps you could start the conservation with,

“… Hey, do you think your history is important?

Together we can make an impact on the health of the nations and the generations to come.

The mission of WHEF is to increase accessibility to medications and supplies for healthcare facilities in Guatemala and Grenada. If you are interested in hearing more about the work we are doing, or in connecting with us, you can visit our website, check out our instagram or facebook, or sign up to receive our newletters. If you would like to support us in our work, please donate here.

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