Teal speakerphone. Text: Podcast

Podcast: The intergenerational impacts of racism

23 October 2023

Thea Joshi is joined by Centre for Mental Health’s Associate Director for Policy, Kadra Abdinasir, to discuss the way racial trauma affects multiple generations of a family. They discuss A Constant Battle, a collaboration between the Centre and King’s College London, which investigates how the experiences of racism towards both parents and children affect their mental health and parent-child interactions. Kadra shares insights from the research and unpacks the concept of trauma, pointing us to actions that could address the severe impact of racism on mental health in the UK.

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Listen to the episode on Spotify or Apple podcasts. The full transcript is available below.



Alethea Joshi (AJ): Hello and welcome to Centre for Mental Health’s podcast. Centre for Mental Health challenges policies, systems and society so that everyone can have better mental health. I’m Thea Joshi and in each episode, I speak to people with experience of mental health difficulties, someone working in a specific area, or a member of our team about mental health and social justice. And this month I chatted with Kadra Abdinasir, our Associate Director of Policy here at the Centre and we discussed a new study we’ve done looking at how racism and racial trauma affect parents and teenagers and the relationships between them. We unpack the concept of trauma a little bit more, and also talked about why tackling racism is such a critical part of building a mentally healthier nation. And if you appreciate our work, we’d love your support, you can donate to our work using the link in the show notes. Hope you enjoy. So welcome Kadra Abdinasir to our podcast. It’s so lovely to have you here with me.

Kadra Abdinasir (KA): Hi Thea, I’m looking forward to speaking to you today.

AJ: Thank you so much for joining us today. There is a lot going on here. We are actually recording on World Mental Health Day, the 10th of October. Obviously, this won’t be going live. But that is the context we’re recording in. And it’s also the day we have launched a new briefing with yourself and Yasmin Ahmadzadeh from King’s College London all about intergenerational racial trauma. So it’s fair to say we’ve not gone for anything light on World Mental Health Day, we’re talking about real systemic issues here. But I’m so glad that you’re here to join us and talk to us all about it today.

KA: Yeah no, really important paper, very timely. It’s also a Black History Month as well. So lots of discussions, I think around mental health, race and the intersections around that. So yeah, it’s good to put this out after a year plus worth of work around it.

AJ: Yeah, so I’ll ask you a bit more about the work in a moment. But I guess just to put it in context for our listeners, we did as you say, do this work, or at least start this work last year in partnership with Kings and with Yasmin, and we’ve just really wanted to hear from young people and parents about their experiences of racism and the impact that that has on the mental health of the whole family. So do you want to tell us a bit more about that.

KA: So just a bit of background, firstly, in terms of the project and where it came from. So this was funded by the Emerging Minds network, which is part of this UK research and innovation, like network of networks, if you like, and the purpose of it really was to like drive research on mental health of children and young people, and we at the centre were working closely with Professor Cathy Cresswell at Oxford University, who leads it. And a lot of this is just really recognising the sort of gaps in data and evidence relating to children and young people’s mental health more broadly, this project was funded by a specific stream of work looking at generating research on voices, power and attitudes in young people’s mental health. So we partnered up with Yasmin because she was a sort of early career researcher at the time, having finished her PhD, to think about developing the idea around it. And like we were really keen to like explore experiences of racial trauma and intergenerational trauma from the sort of UK context, we can say a little bit more about that later. But also, another great thing about this project was that it was mostly all people of colour led team, a mix of postdoctorate, and undergraduates at King’s University. And on our side, myself, my former colleague’s Huong and Alex as well were involved in this. So it was also a way of like, really highlighting the importance of having people from racialized backgrounds lead research, and trying to make that research a bit more sort of, like relevant to communities.

So that’s sort of like the background and context. So basically, it’s a qualitative study, because we didn’t have a huge budget or time as well. So we ran some focus groups with 14 Teenagers and 14 parents and carers from across England, they weren’t necessarily related to one another, I think only one young person and parent were from the same family. But we asked them all about their sort of like experiences of racism, how they felt it impacted themselves, their mental health, but also importantly, like how it impacted parent to child relations and vice versa. So just trying to see the ways that that affected parenting and familial sort of like interactions and support.

AJ: Thanks for that super helpful background. And so what what were the main things that you were hearing from the parents and teenagers involved?

KA: So the main sort of message and it’s not a surprise to us, really, is that experiences of racism are really rampant and prevalent, and they occur across like multiple levels. So thinking about it from a sort of institutional level, right the way through to like, the profound impacts of internalised racism on young people and parents mental health as well. And another sort of like key messages that experiencing racism was traumatising for them. So, when we’re talking about trauma and racial trauma, it’s really important to like recognise there’s the direct experiences that the young people in the parents might face, but they also carry this through histories, through their legacies, through communities and all of that, and that that has a massive impact on them as well. And you know, there’s a growing recognition of racism as a form of trauma or as a form of adversity. In the same way experiencing conflict or abuse and all those other things can be traumatising for people. But, yeah, they told us lots about the way racism affects them in different scenarios or different settings, whether that’s in school, their interactions with, from the parent perspective in the world of work, those types of things. And for us, I think it really helps build on some of our previous research that we’ve had, for example, on young black men’s mental health and our young changemakers programme. It’s something that’s come out, like the racism in the education system, but also, I guess, for the first time, we sort of were able to explore how discussions about racism happen within households and within families as well.

So really thinking about how difficult it is to navigate those discussions between parent and child that fine balance between sort of like preparing their child for the inevitability that some people think that you will face racism, and it’s always happening versus like protecting your child, obviously, over the last few years, since 2020, we’ve been having lots of conversations about racism, and, you know, obviously, coming from a racialized background, or within racialized communities like that challenge around like having the talk with your child to prepare them for the world being very difficult. But parents also shared some of their you know, coping strategies around that, and that sort of thing came up, we can talk about that a bit more. But in terms of like, the mental health impacts of all of these things, like it was, you know, very sad and sobering to actually hear a lot of this, you know, hearing about how it feels feelings of like anxiety, fear for them, sadness, but also being very hyper vigilant, and not knowing like, who to trust, even, you know, from authorities and services that should be there to protect them. And then interestingly, they raised some wider factors that can make some of these experiences even more challenging, or can protect them in the future. So intersectionality was a huge thing that came up. So really thinking about how the experiences of racism might be compounded by disability discrimination, or discrimination on the basis of their immigration status, and that making it quite hard to sort of, you know, manoeuvre these situations. But on the positive side of things, I guess, just a sense from parents, and to a certain extent from young people, really recognising the generational shifts in attitudes and like, being able to sort of like, challenge, call things out, call for solutions. So there was that sort of sense of hope that came out to

AJ: Well, thanks so much for a bit of a whistlestop tour of some of those findings, obviously, we will put a link in the show notes to the full briefing, to our news pages and videos and further information. And what struck me reading through the briefing and working on it is, well, two things from what you just said. So one was, you know, obviously, speaking from a place of total white privilege, just the fact that so many, when white people deny racism, or the prevalence of racism, you know, even just the fact of you talking about, you know, parents having to prepare their children to go into a world that is racist, is just something that white people or white children just never have to worry about, you know, and just the fact that that is a daily part of life, and of bringing up children in this world is is obviously, like, so tragic and awful. And but just so important for us to hear as well. And, of course, that is going to then have a massive impact on people’s mental health and general sense of wellbeing. Right. And I mean, obviously, it goes without saying, but we’re not talking always here about plant of clinical mental illness, although obviously, we know that racism does make you more likely to experience a mental health problem, but also just general sense of well being and as you say, hope and hope for future and opportunities and all of these things. So that was one thing, obviously that’s incredibly hard. Another thing I think that is really moving and powerful in the briefing is there’s a couple of quotes of parents talking to their children. And obviously, again, this is hard, but it’s there’s also something beautiful in there, you know, this person saying, you know, I understand you don’t feel comfortable, but this is who you are. And as you get older, you’re going to have to love yourself. And another one I’ll just read that says, you know, we’re black, but that shouldn’t limit you. You shouldn’t draw back on your expression. If you feel you need to express yourself, express yourself, don’t let them shut you up those quotes from parents and obviously that’s in the face of trauma and oppression. So it’s really hard, but there’s something really powerful about hearing that as well.

KA: Yeah, absolutely. And just on your first point, obviously people may have seen the recent my case of the young girl in Ireland with the gymnastics sort of competition and again, like you can just see the, I don’t want to use the word naivety to a certain extent, we can see the sort of my innocence in that whole situation, from her perspective, just waiting there patiently to like, be given her medal. But, you know, she’s not like, she didn’t have the look like, oh, here we go racism again. In a way, it’s just like, okay, maybe like surely some mistake that they, you know, just bypass me and they didn’t see me. It’s sad, but you know, we don’t want to have to like prepare a young person to say no, you have to, like always defend your defend yourself against racism, make sure you support call it out every single time because it’s very difficult. So yeah, I mean, that’s just like a real life example of how these things play out. And you know, it affected like, it just resonated with so many people of colour around the world, like such a sort of like rallying call for accountability from the institution around that. And yeah, just that that balance between innocence and like, equipping them with the right knowledge is very difficult.

AJ: Yeah. And I know that the briefing also talked about things like parents kind of considering Oh, is it safe for them to go to this person’s house? Or is this a safe environment for my child? Will, you know, will they be kind of safe, almost this idea of safe against racism, even though we know we can’t actually protected from that, but that and and also things around approaches like, Okay, I’m just going to make sure that my child, you know, is is really achieving better than average, to kind of protect, seek to protect children from, you know, various forms of racism.

KA: Yeah, work twice as hard. I’m sure everyone has heard that before.

AJ: Well, it needs saying, and I think yeah, without labouring the point, I think for us, in terms of our comms work, it’s kind of like, well, one of the key findings is that racism is really bad for our mental health. And for us, as an organisation, we can feel like, well, people know that. And it’s like, well, people, some people do know that. But equally, the message clearly isn’t getting through. Because until the government takes a cross government strategy to tackling racism in all its forms, until they take it seriously, we have to keep saying it, because clearly, it’s not getting through. And, you know, similarly, a couple of weeks ago, we launched a major report with lots of other charities about building a mentally healthier nation, and what we want political parties to put in their manifestos. But equally, again, you cannot tackle mental health and poor mental health without tackling things like racism. You know, we know this, and we feel like we kind of keep banging on about it. But clearly, it’s not loud enough yet. So.

KA: No, definitely. And the thing is, because people don’t want to, like confront the reality of it. And, you know, and everything that comes with it, because then there’s wider conversations in society that we need to have to really have like a more sort of equitable society, don’t we? So it feels like it’s the hard thing to do, but actually, in the longer term is the most beneficial for sort of like all aspects of health care, well being and public services really. And not, you know, obviously, withstanding the individual benefits as well.

AJ: So also, I wanted to ask you about, you know, obviously, this research is not like the first of its kind. So why would you say it’s so important at this point in time?

KA: Yeah, so absolutely, it’s not as it’s not the first of its kind. There’s a lot of like literature, looking at intergenerational trauma, and intergenerational racial trauma. But I would say this is a lot more sort of robust and developed abroad. So mainly in the US, within the context of the Holocaust, as well, there’s a lot of sort of literature around generational trauma as a result of, you know, all of those atrocities there. But in the UK, there’s actually very limited research on to these experiences, I think, obviously, there’s generalizable findings from international studies that are also applicable within the UK context. But people from racialized backgrounds here have like, somewhat different experiences, different histories, migration to the UK, and that sort of thing. So I think there’s also nuances that need to be explored. And then also the sort of like political and economic context that we exist in within the UK at the moment. So really thinking about how austerity, conversations around Brexit, current sort of political debates around immigration impacts people, you know, specifically in unique ways in the UK. So that’s something we kind of wanted to shed a bit of light on, but we think there’s still so much more to do to really unpack that a bit further. And yeah, just think about how to make some of the recommendations and solutions out there a bit more fit for purpose within the UK context. So that was also one of our aims to kind of like add to that growing body of evidence. And yeah, a good book I would recommend is Living While Black by Guilaine Kinouani. So she’s a black psychologist who actually did quite a lot of like, really great summaries of the literature on racial trauma globally, and then she tried to draw out some of the ways that it’s relevant within the UK context. I think she’s French by background. So she kind of looks at France in the UK as well. So I’d really recommend that.

AJ: That’s super helpful. Thank you. And again, we will drop a link to that in the show notes. And I’d like to read that myself as well. So thanks for the book, rec. Oh, yeah, I think I think just echoing what you’ve said, and obviously, you know, we’re recording this the week after the Tory party conference, and some of the really, really disturbing rhetoric that was coming out there about migration, immigrants, race, and racism. And also, you know, the current context we’re aware of in terms of both intersections with poverty and the cost of living crisis, and also just major, really stark racial inequalities in mental health. It just feels like this work is so so necessary and, and timely. And so I’m really pleased that we were able to be part of this and to keep shedding light on the fact that actually, yes, this is this is definitely a UK issue as well, in our own specific UK context, but that it does mirror a lot of what we’ve seen across the world and previous studies as well. It’s interesting. I know, early, we touched on racial trauma, and this briefing is about the impact of intergenerational racial trauma. Yeah, I feel like trauma is being talked about, it’s much more part of our kind of everyday language and narratives in life. And so I guess, you know, not assuming that we’re all on the same page with it. And I know, I’m probably not myself, but like, how would you go about trying to explain and describe this massive topic of trauma? Just briefly for us?

KA: Big question. So I guess it’s a bit of an essentially contested concept, in a way, because I think people have different understandings and you know, even trauma-informed is understood in different ways. And that’s actually something we’re exploring at the Centre at the moment through a different project. But I think like, obviously, is, for me, it’s like experiencing some sort of traumatic incident or situation or some form of like adversity. So it can range from like facing racism, experiencing sort of, like sexual abuse, for example, it’s, you know, often related to these kind of unjust events or experiences that people have, sometimes there can be a one off thing and direct, sometimes it can be an indirect thing. So thinking about how conflict might be affecting a traumatic experience for people who are in the diaspora, for example. So it’s quite complicated. I think our understanding of it is evolving. But I think one thing that everyone’s on the same page is, is that like, the sort of assessments and definitions of the past are not as relevant to today’s world, because there’s all sorts of things that are traumatic for people. So thinking about, for example, bereavement, again, that wasn’t necessarily understood in the context of trauma in the past, it was like something that just happened. But if you’re a child and lost a parent to a very, you know, under very sudden sort of circumstances, that is, you know, of course, traumatising. And yeah, I think, you know, really understanding and appreciating people’s sort of unique experiences around it. Like, I think I find it very hard to like, define, yeah, honest with you, practitioners may think otherwise. And there’s all sorts of like definitions and tools that are helpful and like helping us understand it.

AJ: That’s a really helpful explanation, just so we’re so roughly in the same place on that, I just think it’s helpful because I think sometimes trauma is conflated with PTSD, we just label that after anything. It’s again, it’s just like a little note on language that sometimes, as our understanding develops, that’s really good. But it kind of gets misused or misplaced. And that actually doesn’t help us to really communicate what’s going on, emotionally or whatever. So that’s a helpful little note there. Thank you, as we kind of think about all of this stuff, and I know it’s such a massive topics trying to fit into a podcast. But I guess I’d love to sort of know what you think are the key things that need to happen to really take action on this, we’ve looked at how racism is, is a traumatic experience and how it has this intergenerational impact across different parts of members of the family in different levels. What does it look like for people to sit up and really take action on this?

KA: I suppose from a sort of like research perspective. So we in our briefing, we set out recommendations for research policy and practice. So I can give a bit of a summary in terms of like research, obviously, we want to see greater investment into research into this area. And ideally, research led by people of colour as well, and people from racialized backgrounds so that the research is more authentic, and there’s more sort of community led research as well in the space. So it doesn’t all have to be like super academic. I even think, Yasmin and the guys at Kings use like an artist to help facilitate one of the workshops and they did this like one of the first sessions where people are talking about Racism, I must find those images for you and send it to you at some point because it was beautiful. So thinking about really alternative ways of conducting research in this area, because we were very conscious that even asking people to share their very intimate experiences with us can be very traumatising for people. So, research that is relevant, equitable and psychologically safe for people so we can get to the crux of people’s experiences. But fundamentally, I also think shifting the research work into like what works in practice and in action. And in policy, that’s a whole other sort of space that we haven’t really invested that much in either. So that’s the sort of like research bucket of asks that we have. And we’ve put out there to the world.

Also you touched on the sort of like strategic policy things that we also want to see change. So we do need the government, this current government and future governments to really commit to like tackling racism. And that cross government approach is like crucial to it, because one thing we heard loud and clear from all the participants is just how it kind of manifests and is intrinsic to all types of like public systems and services. So that whole government approach, but quite specifically, as well, in the research, it seemed like there’s quite a lot of work that’s needed within education system. So we’re calling on Department for Education to also think about embedding a sort of anti racist approach in schools via a curriculum via teacher training as well. And then obviously, within the health system and within the NHS, and really thinking about how mental health support services could be co-designed and more equitable for people from racialized backgrounds who might be impacted by racial trauma so they can seek support. And then we’ve got like a whole host of different recommendations for practice as well. So again, thinking about the diversity of the workforce, thinking about ways of embedding culturally appropriate responses to mental health. And obviously, through this project, one of the key points is that we need to kind of take a whole family approach to these things, because it’s likely that these experiences might be shared within the household, and the support that a young person or parent might need, you know, we need that sort of like that wraparound support at home too. So where there’s like specific family based interventions, really embedding culturally informed ways of working as part of that, to

AJ: Thank you so much for talking us through that there’s, there’s so much there. And I think, just as you said, at the end there, the idea of taking a kind of whole family approach. Again, this is not surprising, but the fact is that I think we often think about racism and experiences of racism in a vacuum, and like, oh, it’s happening to that one individual person. And obviously, we know that’s not true, because racism is also systemic, and institutional. But thinking about the fact that when say, a young person has an experience of, of racism, that that is also playing into a wider picture of their family, their family’s mental health, the impact of previous and past experiences of racism on other members of the family. So, again, that’s not like rocket science. But it’s not something that I think is often considered when we’re talking about the impacts of racism. So thank you for just flagging that.

KA: Yeah. And that reminds me, we did a piece of work for the Local Government Association a while back, looking at whole family whole household approaches to mental health. And we worked closely with leaders unlocked with young people and families to make sure that this guide that’s available for councils to use really recognises the different ways that different agencies can offer that whole family approach. So I would recommend people checking that out if you’re interested.

AJ: Yeah, thank you. That’s super helpful. And obviously, we’ll also link to that in the show notes. As we draw to a close, I guess what I wanted to ask you is what I’ve tried to put to our podcast guests here on the show, which is how you try and look after your own mental health in the midst of all of this.

KA: Yeah, good question. And I feel you might have asked me this before, and my answer changes every time. But I would say I really like these days, I’m trying to get my step count in because I feel working from home and that sort of thing. I’m just sat all day. So I like to listen to podcasts and go for a walk until the podcast episode finishes. So it can vary. And then something I tried that I wanted to do more of last month was a sound healing class, which was really cool. Yeah, so it’s kind of like a combination of yoga but also using like sound domes and stuff. And honestly, yeah, it just was deeply relaxing and makes you like really meditate, reflect think about just yeah, the healing properties of sound alone, because I think sometimes we take it for granted living in a very noisy world. But yeah, it can also sort of be used to kind of like harness, your energy, your focus and your well being as well. So yeah.

AJ: Amazing. Kadra, thank you so much. It’s been In a real joy to just get a bit of time to chat to you about this again as I always say like we could have chatted for ages longer. There’s a million other questions I want to ask you, but we will leave it there for now and I’m sure we’d love you on the podcast again soon. So yeah, thank you for all of your work on this and for chat with me today.

KA: Thank you too. Great to chat to you as always.

AJ: Thanks for listening. I really hope our conversation has inspired you in the fight for mental health equality. We rely on support to fight for change, so please give what you can at centreformentalhealth.org.uk/donate. See you next time.

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