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Breaking the cycle of trauma that impacts Black people starts with openly acknowledging it exists, according to a group of mental health experts who spoke at a panel during the second annual Black Wall Street Legacy Fest in Historic Greenwood District on Friday, May 27.
Audiences in-person and tuning in to a livestream of the panel, witnessed a rare occasion—a group of Black mental health experts defining generational trauma and what healing looks like for the community.
It’s no secret Black Americans are less likely to seek counseling due to barriers that range from accessibility to negative stereotypes. Yet, the group of therapists who together have formed the Tulsa Black Mental Health Alliance, said the cycle of trauma in Black communities will continue to be passed down until it’s addressed head on.
“I’m glad you created that alliance because that is truly important, moderator Kristi Williams told the panelists.
For Williams, generational trauma hits home particularly hard. She’s a descendant of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors. Williams also works for Fitting Back In, a prison re-entry program in Tulsa that seeks to successfully transition citizens back into society through life skills, career development and counseling, according to their website.
Understanding generational trauma
Panelist Dwayne Mason of Mason Counseling Services explained the difficulties in getting some of his clients to open up.
“I treat a lot of males. We don’t necessarily like to discuss things that are hurtful,” Mason said, explaining how some folks think seeking counseling makes them crazy or weak.
Yet, for Mason and the other panelists, the goal of counseling isn’t to “fix” a person, but rather to enhance the positive qualities they already possess.
“Therapy is seen as something to change the narrative of who you are,” Dwayne Mason said. “But when done correctly, it’s more about enhancing those good strong qualities about you.”
“Trauma can be anything. It can be an actual threat or the experience itself. So, with generational trauma you may not have experienced that particular experience, but it affects you because your grandparents experienced it,” Panelist Amber Mason of Mason Counseling Services added.
Black Americans have long felt the effects of generational trauma, especially the last living survivors and descendants of the wealthiest Black community in U.S. history, who continue to seek justice for the city-sanctioned destruction of 36 square blocks of Greenwood in Tulsa 101 years ago.
In recent years, science journalists have begun to document and research the phenomenon.
There is now converging evidence supporting the idea that offspring are affected by parental trauma exposures occurring before their birth, and possibly even prior to their conception,” a study from the National Library of Medicine stated in 2018.
Black mental health experts talk breaking the cycle
According to the study, scientists began tracing the effects of intergenerational trauma by studying Jewish populations after the Holocaust.
“The parents are not broken conspicuously, yet their children, all of whom were born after the Holocaust, display severe psychiatric symptomatology. It would almost be easier to believe that they, rather than their parents, had suffered the corrupting, searing hell”.
When it comes to Black Americans descended from survivors of slavery, lynchings and massacres, however, little researcher has been done.
“When our great-grandparents experienced trauma, they didn’t get healing from it. And it directly impacted the way they raised their children. That keeps trickling down,” said Kimberly Whayne of Overcross Counseling and Equine Services.
Taking an unconventional approach, Whayne invites her clients out to ride and work with horses while working through their treatment goals.
She explained how she has three clients of three different generations, a daughter, mother and grandmother, who all live in the same low-income apartment complex. Whayne said that refusing to unpack trauma may lead to people getting comfortable with their current situation in life and passing down that mentality to their children.
“Your emotions help you progress to healing, and if you don’t understand them, “you can’t work through the healing process,” Shameca Karmel Brown of SKB Integrated Mental Health added.
Unpacking generational trauma starts with acknowledging it
Notably, the five stages of grief include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Counselor Dwayne Mason stressed the importance of acknowledging the problem as the most important step to unpacking generational trauma.
“Just last year was the first time that a president even said this happened,” Mason said, referencing President Joe Biden’s trip to Greenwood in Tulsa during the 100 year anniversary of the Massacre, perhaps the first time any active president has ever stepped foot in the District.
Discussing the truth of what happened is “the first way to heal,” Mason added.
“What would life be like for them if the 1921 Race Massacre never occurred?” Amber Mason asked. “Section 8 apartments are a direct effect of the trauma we’ve experienced,”
Ultimately, the panelists acknowledged that the few Black counselors in the field must come together to enhance opportunities to support the communities they serve.
“We have to support the people that are interrupting these symptoms that are keeping our people down. I’m not afraid to interrupt the system,” Kimberly Whayne said.
As the Greenwood community seeks restitution for the destruction of life, property, and generational wealth amidst an ongoing lawsuit, the panelists from Tulsa Black Mental Health Alliance elevated the importance of reclaiming mental health.