What Is the Residual Impact of Slavery on African American Mental Health?

Understanding generational trauma and how therapists can be trained to help individuals cope.
Dr. Erica Wilkins, associate professor and program director of couple and family therapy.

We may be five to six generations removed from the horrors of slavery, but the trauma of enslavement has been carried by African Americans through the ages. As a result, African Americans today have suffered psychological and emotional injuries and adopted survival strategies to cope. Research has shown, however, that African Americans underutilize therapeutic services for mental health. Studies also suggest that even when African Americans do seek out mental health care, the quality of care is inadequate. Erica Wilkins, PhD, associate professor and program director of couple and family therapy, explores the ways in which the residuals of slavery affect African American individuals, couples and the clinical implications of these residuals for therapists. Read more about her research and clinical work below.

Q: Tell us a bit about your field or area of research.

A: The system of slavery was predicated on the belief that African Americans are inferior, and that systemic inequality still persists today, as evidenced by the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, educational and health disparities, housing inequalities, among many others. My research aims to understand the psychological burden that African Americans carry from the suffering of enslavement and continued inequality, and the clinical manifestations of this intergenerational trauma.

But I also want to highlight the wonderful acts of resistance and strength that occurred during slavery, and the resilience that still endures. For instance, during slavery, African Americans were not allowed to partake in spiritual practices so they created their own version of church; the unique practices of the African American church are still apparent today. Enslaved Africans were also given the worst parts of the animal to eat, but there was resourcefulness in creating dishes and meals that still informs African American cuisine today. These exemplify a lingering survival story in the midst of very troubling and traumatic circumstances that necessitated survival.

I also want to understand the implications for clinical practice – how can mental health practitioners assist clients in coping with these residual effects, as well as generational trauma, grief, loss and anxiety related to ongoing mistreatment and injustices faced by the African American community? These questions inform my work as a clinician in private practice and caring for my clients, many of whom identify as African American.

Q: What’s one question or project you’re exploring currently?

A: I have completed a study, gathering perspectives from experts in the field, on how we can improve training of therapists to consider the impact of the residual effects of slavery on patients. Therapists are commonly trained from the perspective of the dominant discourse and a model of psychological normalcy that is based on the white middle-aged, middle-class male. This is problematic when caring for patients who fall outside of that paradigm. Even therapists of color, because they’ve been trained from the perspective of a dominance discourse, are often still working from that viewpoint. That’s why simply having representation isn’t enough. There needs to be a radical shift in how we look at existing models for therapeutic care and asking – who created these models? Who were they created for? Who might this model be oppressive towards? How can the model be changed to fit more people?

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?

I practice from the belief that once you’re able to name something, then you’re able to start changing that narrative. A theme that commonly comes up with a lot of my patients is the concept of strong Black womanism. It’s evocative of this image of enslaved African women who had a baby on their back and were having to work fields. If this has been handed down generationally, how do you start seeking liberation from that? And it’s a beautiful gift for me to see patients start to appreciate these residual effects and then begin to shift, and in the case of strong Black womanism – to choose to prioritize self-care.

I also feel like societally we are living through a time of great potential change, and the conversation about race and racial injustice has really come to the forefront – Dr. Erica Wilkins.

Q: What’s a unique experience in your career or moment that stands out?

In 2018, I was really honored to be an invited member of a UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) task force that explores the residual effects of slavery.

A key memory that stands out was a “think tank” that I participated in with the other members of the task force at Georgetown University. I was in awe of the diversity of disciplines from around the world who were gathered, including but not limited to: geneticists, plantation tour owners, filmmakers, historians, psychologists and religious leaders. For two days we listened to the work that each of us has done regarding healing the wounds of slavery, from our professional perspective. I was in awe, humbled and stretched by the expertise of the group of colleagues. A key takeaway that I believe was offered from a Brazilian colleague was that the goal of healing from the wounds of slavery cannot be forgiveness. The concept of forgiveness often furthers privilege that those in positions of privilege experience. Instead, perhaps a goal could be transcendence.

Q: What led you to Jefferson?

A: I’m from the Philadelphia area, and I’m deeply invested in the community that I know and love. I feel like Jefferson is at the beginning of a lot of new things, like the possible creation of a doctoral program in family therapy. I also feel like societally we are living through a time of great potential change, and the conversation about race and racial injustice has really come to the forefront. So it’s a really exciting and hopeful moment for creativity and change.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research/your research question?

A: During my graduate training to become a couple and family therapist, we learned about intergenerational therapeutic models. I was reading Na’im Akbar’s “Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery” at the time and I recall challenging my teachers about the omission of the impact of slavery, as a historical trauma. Those early grad school moments sparked my interest in filling gaps in existing training and treatment models, which ultimately led me to focus specifically on the residual effects of slavery.

Q: What’s something you’re passionate about outside of your research?

A: Travel. I caught the travel bug at an early age and it is a primary means of self-care as I love immersing myself in different cultures.

Q: Who’s a role model or someone who shaped your research journey? Is there a piece of advice that stuck with you or that you try to pass on to young researchers?

A: The late Dr. Karen Wampler, who was a leading researcher in the field of couple and family therapy, gave me sound advice that still lingers. She advised me that you practice becoming the professional that you are going to be, even in the early stages of your doctoral program. If you are a student researcher who makes concessions while in your doctoral program then you practice becoming a professional who will make concessions in your career. This piece of advice taught me to adhere to my passions and convictions as a professional.

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