Op-ed: Intergenerational trauma affects mental health of Southeast Asian-Americans
By Joseph Nguyen
April 16, 2019 9:38 p.m.
I am a second-generation Vietnamese immigrant, a child of refugees from the Vietnam War who lives in the heart of Little Saigon, California. My hometown has one of the highest concentrations of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam, and I am, according to statistical analysis, more likely than the average white American to suffer from depression, all things considered equal.
The thousands of other Vietnamese-, Cambodian-, Hmong-, and Laotian-Americans attending UCLA also share similar mental health risk rates.
I discovered in my freshman year that these aren’t the only communities facing this inherited experience. I attended the United Khmer Students Culture Night, where I learned not just that Cambodian-Americans went through unspeakable trauma – millions of Cambodians were massacred by their government – but also, even more strikingly, that this trauma was estimated to persist, in the form of risk for mental illness for seven generations.
This is despite the fact that none of us have experienced the refugee struggles our parents have.
The reason comes from what some call “intergenerational trauma.”
Intergenerational trauma refers to the phenomenon in which stress or trauma experienced in someone’s lifetime is correlated with stress-related health issues in their descendants, sometimes for multiple generations. This transmission is both genetic and social, stemming from stress’ effects on inherited genetic expression patterns and learned behavioral effects from the trauma parents inflict on their children or expose them to indirectly.
We can see this in the Southeast Asian-American community. It still faces unique conditions related to genetic and behavioral intergenerational transmissions of stress from its war-torn pasts, which is directly linked to higher risks for mental illness and other psychophysiological health conditions in further generations.
In fact, a study on intergenerational stress on refugees found that second-generation Vietnamese-Americans were extremely sensitive to their parents’ trauma and often felt a burden to compensate for their parents’ losses. The study even linked the fact that the fathers’ risks of post-traumatic stress disorder accurately predicted the state of the children’s mental health 23 years later.
It’s easy to grasp this from a societal lens. Often, we, as Southeast Asian-Americans, feel a cultural pressure to succeed: Our parents, as refugees, gave up their lives and dreams so we could have a better future, and we feel that burden of fulfilling the goals they were never able to. Inadvertently, many Asian-American students think of their anxieties as a pittance compared to the trials our parents or grandparents underwent. That guilt often festers into depression and other mental disorders that we refuse to obtain psychological help for.
Genetics also supports this explanation of many Asian-American Bruins’ psychological struggles. A 2015 study found how parental stress can be transmitted through neuroendocrine and epigenetic changes – processes involving the transmission of hormones and gene expression, respectively. In the case of the Southeast Asian community, refugees who undergo PTSD experience constant hyperactive stress responses that produce abnormally high cortisol levels, something is symptomatic of long-term stress. These abnormal hormone levels can be passed onto offspring during fetal development, who have a greater risk of a hyperactive stress response that contributes to anxiety or depression.
The genetic transmission effects in Southeast Asians become even more apparent when we observe these strong, positive correlations in anxiety and depression. For example, in many Cambodian-American children whose parents suffer from PTSD from the Khmer Rouge genocide.
It is essential to understand the behavioral and biological bases of intergenerational stress in order to combat the unique health issues facing the Southeast Asian-American community. Resources like UCLA’s Counseling and Psychological Services center can easily ignore background and culture when dealing with mental health issues, but this understanding is essential to providing the adequate care these minority groups need.
There are many student-led programs at UCLA to bring awareness to this. The Asian Greek Council is hosting its second annual Asian American Mental Health Awareness Week, designed to open up mental health dialogue for Asian-Americans. During Bruin Day weekend, the 11th annual Southeast Asian Admit Weekend took place, in which new Bruins were able to explore their identities, histories and cultures and share stories about usually unapproachable topics like mental health. The psychology and Asian American studies departments also offer a course that explores the specific issues different Asian-American groups face and how such issues play into mental health and psychology.
These programs and classes are student-led and student-advocated innovations. The more these programs gain momentum within the community, the more administrators will recognize the need to fund and recognize them.
Understanding the nuances of the Southeast Asian-American communities is the first step to dismantling this phenomenon of intergenerational trauma. And in our ever-diversifying university and society, it’s a key to understanding those around us.
Nguyen is a third-year human biology and society and Asian languages and linguistics student. He is involved with the Asian-American community at UCLA in programs like Southeast American Admit Weekend.