A few months ago, my 9-year old nephew and I were watching Disney’s Encanto, chronicling the journey of the Madrigal family who flee their home village in Colombia to a charmed place called Encanto. All of the family members, except one, are armed with special powers; this causes the family’s widowed matriarch to pressure her children and grandchildren to live up to impossible expectations to use their supernatural gifts to survive.
Though a children’s movie, Encanto portrayed a theme that I was intimately familiar with: intergenerational trauma.
According to therapist and founder of Love Your Behavior, Ayushi Acharya, LCSW, MPH, intergenerational trauma is best described as unresolved pain that is passed down through generations and can include intimate partner violence, low self esteem, medical conditions, poor mental health, and other self destructive behaviors. In the South Asian community, this concept shapes the identities of millions (as a result of Partition, poverty, lack of education, financial distress, etc.), though hardly acknowledged or dealt with.
The mental weight of intergenerational trauma can be heavy and cyclical in nature. The stories of representatives of the South Asian community portray how reacting to the inherited trauma can continue to impact their lives if not properly rectified. Here are some ways intergenerational trauma can impact the South Asian community.
Amber, a 20 year old Pakistani-American student, grew up with a mother who experienced widespread trauma while growing up in Pakistan. Instead of dealing with her emotions, she buried them. When it came to Amber’s own struggles with depression and anxiety, she resisted going to therapy because she saw that her mother was fine without it, and believed that she had to act similarly. Her religion, coupled with societal stigma towards counseling, contributed to her defiance.
“A lot of my family turned to religion to cope and find comfort. My dad is a pretty traditional Muslim and encouraged me to turn to God for help with my mental illness. I think it’s important for older generations to realize that therapy is not a way of replacing religion, but an added booster when dealing with life’s challenges,” she tells Teen Vogue.
A 2020 study found that South Asians experience high rates of mental health issues, but often don’t seek treatment. One reason people in the community don’t seek mental health help, according to the study, is the cultural idea that getting help outside the family can be seen as a failure.
It wasn’t until Amber attempted suicide that she realized there was no shame in asking for help. Therapy is the avenue that helped her to heal, and is what she believes will allow future generations to explore the trauma that they are handed. She learned from her mother’s mistakes to be proactive about her future.
South Asian women are often perceived to be docile and submissive beings whose life purpose is geared towards child-rearing and domestic duties. Blame it on Bollywood, or archaic societal constructs, any deviation from these characteristics is often frowned upon.