Supporting Persons with Disabilities who also Suffer From Generational Trauma During the Holidays
By Nora Joy, LICSW Director of Behavioral Health for Color of Law Center
As we approach the middle of December, we are reminded that many holidays are celebrated. One of the Holidays is Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a reminder of the community connections that Africans in America have made in an effort to retain their own history, spiritual, and cultural heritage. It’s also an effort to retain historical accomplishments of ancestors. One of the purposes of Kwanzaa is to remind children that their ancestors were people who can serve as a source of multiple historical accomplishments. It is an essential holiday that often goes unnoticed because of the inability to purchase items related to the holiday in related items at the major stores. There are often one or two different Kwanzaa educational books that are found in some of the larger chain bigger stores, and no other reference to the holiday
The purpose of this discussion around holidays is because depression and sadness is often not a popular topic during the holiday season. During the holiday season, it is often a misnomer to discuss the effects of sadness among family generations. In fact, one may look at many family histories and determine a strong genetic component to the sensitive neurological nature of depression. There is a historical component to how a family manages depression. There is a community component to how a family addresses depression. It is often during these Holidays that depression is looked down upon as a contrast to the celebration itself.
Sometimes, symptoms of depression might be better acknowledged and dealt with when there is some understanding between family systems about how depression has served as a motivator for success. For example, freed slaves often called the “blues” or it’s often referred to as a “nervous breakdown.” In Caucasian families it’s often referred to as fatigue. You’ll hear more about stars in Hollywood who have been assisted at hospitals for fatigue. Even Martin Luther King suffered from fatigue.
In the clinical world, fatigue is often a code name for depression. In fact, there are many references to Martin Luther King reportedly and how he too suffered from fatigue and would need other people to take the lead during one or two weeks of time. He would need rest. (Nassir Ghaemi M.D., M.P.H. #) Jackie Kennedy reportedly was often sent to rest for several weeks after struggling with fatigue (John A. Farrell.) It’s just not a term that most clinicians announce to the outside world.
Holidays during Covid will be much more difficult. One remembers the significant people in their lives that they have lost. One remembers that they have been separated. Covid separation could bring up feelings connected to other separations. African Americans who had been sold from their mothers sold from their fathers. They were expected to create a life on their own as their firm attachments had been removed. An older slave was to serve as an entire replacement for a parental figure. It was in no consequence that the attachments of brothers and sisters were ever considered. It was in no consequence that a slave mother could be taken from her own family for weeks and months at a time if they’re lucky. They would sometimes breast feeding a slave master’s family.
The caretaking position even occured after slavery as many freed slaves could not find jobs. For example in my own family the elder women were sent to care for the slave Masters elder mother.
One of those points was made in The Color Purple in which the white boss woman couldn’t drive and needed to be driven home (Tambay Obenson). Seeley had come home and was teaching the boss woman to drive. Seeley was only able to stay for a short period of time. She was not able to enjoy her family after years of missing them. This is an example of gross servitude that can rip the joy out of the celebration of a holiday. There was no consequence or consideration given to the family that is left behind and how traumatizing this was to African American families. This is the African American experience.
In my family, when we get together we are surrounded by food, we’re surrounded by music, fun and. jokes. Playing games are woven into a fine tapestry along with particular comments that the deceased loved one used to make. Woven into the story is a recipe, food or jokes based off a family member’s behavior. In the telling of the stories related to this family member, there are recreations of the presence of the family member. One might say, “You soundin like uncle…” That serves as a spiritual grounding for the family and an attempt to reconnect to that elder. It is a traditional guru type tradition that is often passed down without members of the family even knowing that that is possible. The same happens during a funeral in which different factors are learned about a deceased family member. Each family member has a different side as their memories preserve characteristics of that individual.
Sometimes families have no way of closure. I imagine that those who celebrate Hanukkah may often have the same experience. The reality is that generations of people were ripped away from families and adds to the recreation of generational trauma. The loss of a grandparent is in no comparison to immense suffering of the loss of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins lost in the Holocaust.
This is partially why Holidays are stressful. Events that serve as the foundation for trauma are much of what triggers symptoms of depression. What does this mean if you have one family member who has attempted suicide especially around this season when anxiety and sadness is most present? There may be additional family members without knowing the dates of the suicide that they will suffer from suicidal ideation. It does not matter that the person is receiving treatment, it does not matter if the person has accomplished goals. Even if the person is rich or if the person is successful there may be a transfer of the suicidal ideations without generationally understanding the significance of it. It may also be transferred throughout their community.
Picture this: around this time of the year a household caught fire and there were multiple deaths within the house. There may be a contagion effect in which the community members or family members may suffer from feelings of self harm without even knowing why or how it came into context. This phenomenon has been so prevalent that the police have refrained from reporting when there is a suicide because of the factual increase of further suicides that are induced within two to three weeks of the initial suicide (Alan Teo, 2018.) Those deaths are now referred to as mysterious deaths, death by accident, unknown reason deaths, or unknown illness deaths. In fact, the use of this process has decreased the amount of secondary suicidal gestures in multiple communities. This is a factor that is talked about much unless one is immersed in the clinical therapeutic world.
So how does one as a community and one as a family come to terms with the fact that there are unspoken factors that are connected to depression. How does one develop coping skills for depression? We can in fact celebrate and recognize the fact that this sadness is a coping factor and a generational occurrence. Michelle Obama talked about how living in Covid has led her to suffer from symptoms of isolation. The stigma is less frightening and less likely negatively impacted when an individual begins to speak about depression. But what if each December celebration included a recognition of the loss of an individual, the loss of a community, or the loss of a child.
Kwanzaa does have a portion where the names of loved ones and love leaders are spoken. Maybe it is possible to recognize the special characteristics of loved ones and teach a younger generation how not to hide depression but to cope with it, accept it, move through with it and get help for it. This may also take the stigma away and reduce the pressure that is involved with making December holidays a symbol of perfection, achievement, and status in all communities.
The Color of Law Center Foundation provides free legal services to those who have disabilities and those who have been discriminated against. Some of these persons with disabilities will have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and major depression or bipolar disorder. These factors above in connection with particular persons with disabilities will make surviving through December as an important task to overcome.
As government systems continue to victimize individuals with disabilities, it may very well serve as a symbolic retraumatization. This makes the work of the Color of Law Center Foundation even more important because it is a protective factor. Feelings of encouragement and hope become prevalent when there is an advocate in one’s corner. It also provides a cushion to the multiple assaults that occur when government officials or larger systematic officials practice covering up their particular violations. COLCF is knowledgeable and understanding of what the system can not allow others to get away with. One who struggles with the disability may not be knowledgeable of retaining one’s dignity. COLCF serves as a light in what may be a dark place for a person with disabilities as they are often overwhelmed by much of what is difficult for anyone to understand.
The services provided by the COLCF are essential in assuring that people with disabilities do not develop secondary and tertiary conditions due to being victimized through a governmental system. For that one should be thankful and the community should be encouraged. An organization such as this may have been referred to as what the 1800s would have called the abolitionists. They serve as part of grassroots efforts of the services that Quakers provided to freed slaves.
Most of all, these services may relieve stress that could have led to a panic attack or depressive episode that would normally lend a person with disabilities in a psychiatric ward. This service may shield an individual from this type of stress. I imagine that slaves with advocates and lawyers may have developed a stronger sense of self esteem. So for that, COLCF serves as a champion in one’s corner. The fighter is the person with multiple disabilities that may have suffered generational trauma. For the first time, they may be able to acknowledge that there is hope under the simple word called advocacy.
Farrell, John A. “http://www.kittykelleywriter.com/category/jackie-oh/.” Kitty Kelley Writer, 2020.
Nassir Ghaemi M.D., M.P.H. “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Depressed and Creatively Maladjusted.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mood-swings/201201/martin-luther-king-depressed-and-creatively-maladjusted. Accessed 16 January 2012.
Tambay Obenson. “The Color Purple: How Steven Speilberg’s Movie is Still Meaningful and Problematic For Black Women.” Indiewire.com, 3 April 2020, https://www.indiewire.com/2020/04/the-color-purple-debate-anniversary-1202217786/.
Teo, Alan. “Manner of News Reporting Can Raise Suicide Risk.” OHSU, 14 June 2018, https://news.ohsu.edu/2018/06/14/anthony-bourdain-is-dead-but-whos-next.