Epigenetics is a relatively new field of study that has uncovered powerful connections between traumatic events and long-term health outcomes. In the black community, epigenetic research has proven particularly important in understanding how experiences of racism, enslavement, oppression, and colonialism have impacted the mental health of generations. We know how the past affects current mental health outcomes because of loss of generational wealth, continued prejudices in employment and schooling, and dangerous policies like red zoning. Epigenetics goes a step further by displaying that trauma fundamentally affects DNA of descendants, possibly up to fourteen generations after the fact. Though this knowledge can be overwhelming and disheartening, it also serves to support the uniquely resilient spirit of Blackness. Epigenetic research has shown how ancestral trauma can make black communities more responsive to stressors, which in turn helps African Americans cope better with current issues like police brutality or healthcare disparities.
Mental Health in the Past
When Black people experienced enslavement, hypervigilance and hard work ensured that their families endured. This survival mode wasn’t a mental health issue, but instead an adaptation that helped generations survive and thrive in a hostile environment. However, this perpetual state of vigilance can easily become psychological trauma passed on through the generations. In order to address these issues, we need to take an epigenetic approach to improving black mental health: understanding how Black ancestors experienced trauma and how future generations can protect themselves from it in the future.
Epigenetics in the Present
Today, living with this inherited heightened stress and high performance can slowly whittle away at the quality of life for black people. What started as prejudiced ideas around black people being inherently susceptible to disease became the heavy realization that weathered DNA from trauma increases risk for certain physical and mental illnesses. Healthcare has drastically improved as time goes on, as does accessibility for marginalized groups. Unfortunately, black people continue to face higher risk. This is where epigenetic science comes into play.
Studies have demonstrated that epigenetic changes can enable individuals to cope with trauma more effectively, thus helping to break harmful cycles and pave the way for improved mental health outcomes. This knowledge reinforces the strength of African Americans, who have endured through centuries of trauma and sustained their culture through it all. Black people have created systems of joy, art, and community that change their struggles into something triumphant. Epigenetic research has proven that this resilience is encoded in the DNA of African Americans and can be passed down to future generations.
With knowledge of epigenetics, Black people can begin to address their mental health with a simultaneous sense of appreciation of their ancestors’ strength and the weight of improving their present health journey. Epigenetic therapies focus on using a combination of lifestyle modifications, such as dietary changes, mindfulness practices, and stress-reduction techniques to improve mental health outcomes. In addition to these treatments, epigenetics also suggests that cultural context can significantly impact our ability to cope with trauma. For example, communities with strong networks of support and celebration of Black culture can help provide resilience in the face of stressors. All of these strategies increase the quality of life and health for black people.
By understanding the epigenetic effects of trauma, black people can better target preventive measures in their communities while also acknowledging the strength and resilience that Blackness offers. This knowledge allows them to recognize how mental health issues have been perpetuated through generations and it gives them the power to create better outcomes in their own lives and future generations. It also helps them remember that not only is trauma passed down through DNA, joy is. The more joy and wellness they cultivate, the more resilient future generations of African Americans will be. Seeking mental health clinicians who can provide spaces of understanding and empathy is an important step in creating sustainable wellness practices. Only through holistic wellness can the future expand into beauty and joy.
WOC Reflections features weekly interviews and wellness tips delivered to your inbox.