Racial and Intergenerational Trauma for ACB Youth: Black Mental Health in the Home (Episode 3)
“Although we need our own space, it's also about preserving the black identity and honouring it, recognizing the strengths within it. As well as, of course understanding the struggle and knowing that's an implication on one's mental wellness but preserving the black identity.”
Simone Donaldson is a Consultant, Therapist, and founder of Agapé Lens Consulting and Therapy, with over 12 years devoted to mental health, racialized communities, and youth. She offers consultations to private, non-profit, and public sectors, to help guide and implement equity, cultural humility, anti-black racism, mental health, and wellness education, through program development, workshops, leadership coaching, staff development, and speaking engagements. She also prioritizes Black youth 12-24 for psychotherapy and counselling, through a warm, honest, and mindfully present approach. Simones' practice is grounded in trauma-informed principles, an Afrocentric lens, attachment, holistic, and strength-based practices. She believes true healing manifests when we become our most authentic self, allowing us to thrive and live out our purpose.
Opening Remarks: This is our monthly series called "Racial and Intergenerational Trauma for ACB Youth w. Simone Donaldson", we have two episodes out already! This month's episode is called, A Conversation about Black Mental Health in the Home
SWY: How can a child be impacted by a parent with significant mental health challenges or a parent who is suffering from mental illness?
SD: Well there are definitely a variety of ways this can happen, especially if it's not treated right because we do know that there are some parents who have mental illnesses and they're still able to function and love their children and kids, just as if they didn't have a mental illness. But for those who are really struggling with it and those who are not under the right treatment, it can have a huge impact on our children and youth. I work from many different theories that I practice from including, afrocentric care, attachment theory, holistic, trauma-informed, these are a few of the areas that I really focus on. So when I think of this question I immediately go to attachment theory. This is the idea that the way in which you're reared, the way that you're nurtured as a child can truly impact the way in which you see the world, the way you see yourself, how you connect with individuals. So often when we talk about attachment, it's about how it impairs your social, as well as emotional development. Your inability or ability, to have healthy relationships, to see yourself as valuable in these relationships, to see yourself as safe and secure. And those are very key things that we need as children and youth to know that we are protected in this world, that we are safe and secure, that we people that are reliable, that love us. And the bond is so important, just as important as the air that we breathe. And this is not just for children, it's also for adults and oftentimes you will find that those who actually struggle with mental illness, struggle with their own attachment areas and as a result because they do not know how to role model that and because it was never role modeled for them, sometimes that same experience gets transferred to their children or youth.
There are four types, there's secure attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, and also the disorganized attachment, and all of these play out in different ways, So my concern is of course is just the instability that this has caused in the home and as a result, have great impact for individuals in their social and emotional development.
The great thing is obviously these things can move and change depending on how people connect in healthy relationships in the future, and/or toxic ones. So it doesn't always remain the same, necessarily, but it definitely has a huge impact on our emotional and mental wellness.
SWY: There are very evident examples of intersectionalities between mental health and race that continue to oppress the Black community in various ways. What are these social determinants and how might they encourage further trauma for both the child and the parent?
SD: So when we look at racial trauma, the connection between racism and mental health, what we do know is that people are often in this place of survival mode. It really ravishes their lives in so many different ways. But even beyond that, society is constantly telling us that we're not good enough, that our black identity is not accepted here, that we're savages, that there's something wrong with us. And as a result of that we often move to a place of depression, of anxiety, and all these places of mental illnesses that are often undiagnosed or over-diagnosed and just not treated well. And I think the intersection there really creates this constant feeling of retraumatization, to be quite honest. So when we think of microaggressions it's the daily incidents where one is made to feel less than. So the implication is that you move into this survival mode place. And the systems are what further traumatize us and we see this in so many ways with how poverty ravishes our community.
So we have high levels of poverty, so over-represented in the poverty system because of the lack of employment, which is not because of our inability or our intelligence but really because of the constant rejection, the fears, the lies that are being told about who we are as black people. And so these implications are huge and wide, and as a result of that, children and parents feel that they don't have a fighting chance. So we stay in the fight of survival versus the fight of thriving. And I think when we look at the housing market, again that's all wrapped up in poverty, as well as looking at the appropriate resources and access to those, where are they? And so as a result of this when you are in this constant place of survival mode, what you are gonna do is continue to find ways to protect yourself and possibly isolate in this illness versus reach out for help or feel like there really is help out there for you, so this will further retraumatize people.
It also has some people internalizing the experiences. When we talk about racial trauma we cannot not talk about internalized racism and how that impacts the identity and how we start to normalize things as though what they're saying about us, what they feel about us is true. And so the traumatization is on this cyclical plane versus having time to breathe and just be. So unfortunately, it's a constant retraumatizing experience, but also we have proof in the way the systems treat us that make us feel continuously less than and unsafe.
SWY: What are the fears of addressing mental health in an ACB home? How can this retraumatize the individual? What is one way you can attempt to overcome this fear, as a child and as a parent?
SD: When I think about this question, I automatically go to intergenerational trauma because the way in which we've learned how to cope is often what we transfer to our kids. Unfortunately, one of those things that have been imposed upon us as invalid and as not okay; is the expression of anger. For our community, in particular, we are often told that anger is not okay, is not allowed, it's threatening. To those outside of our community this is how anger is being perceived in our community. Then we think of sadness, which can be associated with depression as well as anger. We're told that we're weak in our community because the only permission we have been given is to be angry, as they stereotype us in a particular way. But then sometimes again, that internalized oppression and racism allows us to accept that. And so this is our armour; the response of anger and recognizing any other emotion as weak and not something that we're allowed to experience.
The issue is that when there is youth, for instance, in this experience they're not going to feel safe enough to necessarily speak to their parents who they are now going to think are judgemental around having these different emotions that they've never been able to express or have never seen their parents express. The same thing with a parent, they're also going to feel as though they cannot go to a friend. They can't even go to their religious leaders sometimes about the feelings that they're having because they're going to feel further rejected and isolated. And so they often isolate and continue down the path of survival mode and ignore their experiences.
We know that when you are suppressing emotions, suppressing toxins, suppressing pain, it's only going to make us more sick and unwell; mentally, emotionally, physically, socially. This is the danger of how it might be experienced in the black family, specifically, because not alot of us are seeking support or education around it because it's so taboo. I think that it's really important that we have space and open up space for this. It's important for people to know that it's okay to not feel okay, to not feel your best self, it's okay to express emotions of anxiety, stress, and sadness. It's okay to even express anger, it's what we do with anger is where it becomes problematic but anger is a really healthy emotion and we have choice and permission to express it the way any other race does.
I want people to know that it is okay to feel this way and it's not your fault. In fact, you are just being human by reacting in these natural ways, you're allowed to do that. I think once we're able to recognize these feelings then we can move towards a path of healing. That also means getting the education, the proper information around it, as well as connecting to culturally responsive organizations and resources. I will always talk about village building being so key, center, and integral to our overall healing. We do not have to do this alone, we see you, you are not the only one, and I really hope that people get the support necessary to move through this healing process.
SWY Comment: You briefly spoke about spirituality or religion which is very integral in our communities and with the systems, the internalized racism, the systemic racism, even the religious leaders may not feel comfortable to bring mental health in a church (or other religious place). Or even the parent or the child, may not feel comfortable bringing that to a church (or other religious place) or religious leader.
SD: It's so important for people to understand that, like you mentioned, spirituality is so important for our community and people express that in a variety of ways. I know that many times, in my experience when working with my community, often that was the one thing that gave them hope. As soon as I started talking about their belief system and what that has done for them and explored that with them further, you just saw smiles, you saw the reminiscing of things happening to them. They started to feel like, "Wow, I can actually do this." I think it's really important for our systems to recognize that as a source of strength for our people, and a way forward in their healing. Not to deny them that strength. Which has been happening for many years, which is partly why often people don't feel seen and heard in these spaces where were supposed to get that support because everything that we hold as a priority and important to us has been told that it's not good enough, has been told that this is not the way to do it but we know that for years this is actually our anchor, oftentimes.
When we talk about spirituality, it's important that both the church (or other religious place) knows the connection between its importance to people's mental illness which may also mean getting professional support as well as praying and doing other spiritual or religious things about it. But sometimes, it's not enough to just pray about it, it's important that we get the extra support. But also the systems need to recognize how integral it is to our identity and the way we see a brighter future for ourselves.
SWY: How do you think it might be different for an ACB parent to ask for help versus their child or a child?
SD: By the time you become an adult in this Canadian society and you've been rejected a thousand times or you don't feel seen and heard in these agencies. Then we have proof in which systems like that of Children's Aid Society, taking away our children, there's a lack of trust there for us. We go through hesitation every time we reach out for care, if we in fact do. I think that the challenge with parents is that they've tried and it's never worked. They feel failed often and when people constantly feel failed, they don't trust the system, they don't trust that they can actually get better. Then they start finding their own solutions, which sometimes can work but oftentimes truly doesn't.
I think the difference in accessing help, is that parents are automatically going to feel defensive, just fearful really about what the response might be. So in order for them to really engage in treatment and in these services that are out there for them, they need to know they're first, being seen. They need to know that they're also being valued, they need to know what they're bringing is going to be understood, and this is why we need culturally appropriate services with people that actually look like us, which is very essential and important to that support.
I also feel that when we're thinking about our youth, unfortunately because of the adultification they are often also treated as though they can bear the pain, as though their sickness or illness isn't as important. That they are these "strong black women" and "strong black men ''. Adultification is really the loss of innocence of our children, which means they are truly being treated as adults as well. But in fact, they are just like all our other little children out there and not been given the same amount of love, support, and care that is necessary for them to remain well or move into wellness. I would say from what I've experienced and observed and in terms of the experience of the clients I observe is that sometimes youth are receiving faster response times depending on their age because there's policies out there that are more protective. But with that being said, I think about the black alliance report that speaks about children often being connected to care out of the criminal justice system; that being the highest percentage of ways that they're connected to mental health services. But on top of that we think about the wait times and there's so many stats out there that have proven that our young boys and girls and youth have much higher wait times than our white counterparts. So it's very difficult for them and it's a very different experience.
SWY: As a social worker and counsellor yourself, as mental health professionals, you are all trying your best but there is a big influx of black youth and black families trying to get that help, so there's only so much you can do. As you said there's waitlists, you can talk more on that.
SD: Although there's quite a bit of us, and I would say there's probably more of us now than there has been before, in the field, as well as much more accessibility because we're going virtual. There is a waitlist for us but our mental health system in Canada, in general is not prioritized unfortunately in our country and as a result there's often wait times in those systems, as well. And so what you'll find is continuous waitlists to find psychiatrists, mental health practitioners, etc, and when we're free, and if we have individuals living in poverty that don't have benefits then they have to access something that requires longer wait times. Not that all of our community does live in poverty but too many of us do and don't have those kinds of benefits and as a result we're having to wait on free support. So the delays are already horrible but when you identify as black, it's increased exponentially because you're black. And as a result of that, the care that you need things get worse and worse in the home and with yourself, and the way in which you connect to people because you're not getting the support on time. As I said, if you are non-black you will likely get that care much faster, which is unfortunate, so they have a better chance at wellness, unfortunately.
SWY Comment: I was shocked when you said that for most Black youth when they do find that mental care, it's through the criminal justice system. That's very shocking.
SD: It's very sad for me to understand that's the way in which we are getting support. So it's usually forced support, as well as support through a system that does not treat our youth well at all and/or our adults. Unfortunately, the treatment we do get we are often forced into it, as youth specifically, that's where those stats lie. I also think it's important to note that with adults, I'm sure you'll see similar stats in terms of when we'll get support. It's not when we feel that we have a choice to actually get the support and we feel much more conscious of that but it's often in times of crisis, to wait until the last minute to get the support. And there's many narratives as to why that happens, including the fact that we do not trust this system. And also when we speak about that intergenerational trauma response of coping which is that we have to be strong, which we've also been told that we have to do. So very complex, this is why many of us, unfortunately, stay unwell and isolated and in secret when we are experiencing mental illness.
SWY: What's the significance of culturally appropriate resources?
SD: What I've noticed time and time again, both in my practices, as well as when I worked in other organizations, there's this sense of safety, sense of security, sense of peace, sense of hope! Imagine walking around actually not feeling hope everyday? So when they feel like they're being seen and they feel like they are being valued, they feel like they actually finally belong, that right there, in itself, is a part of the healing process.
So being culturally responsive is important because it's integral to how we're actually going to move forward with treatment or not. We're either going to continue to isolate, try to find our own ways of healing, whether it be addiction or continuing in toxic relationships, etc, or we move towards getting the appropriate support we need because we actually feel like people care about us and we feel like we can trust them. So the significance of it is really life or death when you think about it. When people don't feel hopeful then it brings them to very dark places that are sometimes very difficult to get out of. And so we want people to give people a fighting chance to feel that and without being culturally responsive you are not going to give people a fighting chance to remain well or get well. So it's extremely significant to those with mental illness and to them finding some sort of healing.
SWY: Can you give two examples of culturally appropriate resources that provide help/healing to the individual?
SD: I just want to start off by saying these systems are all connected and unfortunately, our government does not necessarily prioritize or value mental health already, as it is and then when we talk about black mental health, it's even less regarded as important in our society. So I want to say that even though I'm mentioning these organizations they are a part of a very unkind system to the black population. So sometimes the services that they provide, as much as it's culturally responsive, sometimes the response is also lacking because our government, our systems are not allowing for longevity of the care and support that they're able to provide.
So as an example of that, I think of our community health centres, specifically TAIBU and Women's Health in Women's Hands. These organizations are mandated to specifically address through a holistic lense the wellness of our black community. So that means looking at programs and services that address not just the mind, but also the body, our social interactions, and our spirituality, as I have spoken about earlier. They recognize that all these parts are interconnected and in order for people to stay well and get well we can't just look at the physical aspect of areas that need to be healed, that need to be addressed but recognizing that it's connected to our mind, body, soul, and how we interact with individuals.
I really love these services because they are mandated. I do think it's important that we mandate services to support our black population. But also in the way in which they respond, they recognize the disproportionate rates of poverty, they recognize how transportation, housing, education, immigration, all these aspects really impact the black identity and the black experience. I like to call them the "one-stop shops" for our health and wellness needs because they have doctors, nurses, and mental health practitioners, they have programs for people to connect, relate and release some of the distress they're experiencing. So I really love community health centres for those particular reasons.
I'm also really big on village building, of course, and mentoring being part of the village building process. They have what's called a "rights of passage" program, I know of one that's run through Wood Green Community Centre. This is support from elders supporting youth and young people to move through their black identity, preserving the black culture, and working from an empowerment place, like the afrocentric care, that I often speak about. It's really to empower us versus allowing us to remain and sit in the problems, in the struggle. It really empowers and honours the black identity and uses ancestral ways of being and coping, for people to identify with how great they are as a black individual.
I think that's very important that when we talk about culturally responsive programs, that we're not just trying to provide programs that do say we only serve black people because that's obviously not enough. Although we need our own space, it's also about preserving the black identity and honouring it, recognizing the strengths within it. As well as, of course understanding the struggle and knowing that's an implication on one's mental wellness but preserving the black identity. That's what anti-black racism has done, is robs us of the greatness of our black identity. So when we talk about culturally responsiveness, it can't be responding to just having black people in our care or mandating it but how are we preserving the black identity, how are we honouring it, how are we using that as a strength and a way forward.
Closing Remarks: I would just like to say to parents that we see you, it's not your fault, you don't know what you don't know. We are here to support you as black practitioners in the field. We understand how difficult it could be to navigate within cultures, as well as in our society. But you are so worth all the wellness in the world to not just survive but to thrive. And for our youth and our children we also see you, we also care about you, and we also want to ensure that you know that you deserve so much more. And that you have a life that can be full of joy and full of peace, and full of all that you desire in your heart. And there are many of us that see you and want what's good for you and it's very possible. Although, I know this world is not very kind to you but we see you and we really want all the best for you!
We want to thank Simone for being a part of our conversation and sharing her knowledge on racial and intergenerational trauma for ACB Youth. Make sure to check out her Instagram for more information on this topic.
Program/Services Currently Offerings:
Guest Speaker/Lecturer/Mental Health Workshops: Black mental health (i.e. microaggressions, racial trauma, immigration), Self-Care, Self-esteem, Relationships, Grief (youth and/or adult specific)
Staff Development: Black Employee Healing Circle, Anti-Black racism Workshops, Mental Health Workshop/Guest Speaker about the same topics described above
Leadership Development: Coaching, Team Conflict/Consultations, Anti-Black racism workshop, Mental Health Workshop/Guest Speaker about the same topics described above
Counselling/Psychotherapy: Caseload and waitlist are currently full