Intergenerational Trauma and the Toll on Mental Health in the South Asian Diaspora

By Maryam Bint-Mumin


Intergenerational trauma is when trauma experienced by one generation extends into the next generation. This can occur through social conditioning,learned behaviors or through epigenetic changes that cause behavioural changes. The widespread culture of shame when discussing mental health in South Asian communities has led to generations and generations of individuals living with unresolved trauma and mental illnesses, making way for a cycle of poor psychological and physical health, even affecting relationship dynamics.


The Partition of India in 1947, the ongoing Indo-Pakistan wars and the Bangladesh Liberation war in 1971 resulted in increased numbers of single-parent families and orphans, lasting poverty, and in particular PTSD amongst both soldiers and the hundreds of thousands of women who were abused and tortured through campaigns of genocidal rape. These conflicts were rooted in the fight for cultural and religious freedoms, like the Bengali Language Movement, the fight against the repression of the Bangla Language in Bangladesh when it was once part of Pakistan. The ongoing threats to identity have continued to strengthen the cultural significance of collective honour and reputation, where the actions of an individual are seen as a representation of the family, community, or country as a whole. Fuelling the culture of shame and silence, as hardships, abuse, trauma, and mental health problems are covered up, ignored and go untreated in order to maintain a families 'honour. The historical trauma experienced by South Asians due to the civil wars still presents itself in the generation that experienced these hardships first hand, and in the following generations who were raised by people carrying their own unresolved trauma and grief.


The Post-War migration from South Asia occurred in different phases as people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka moved to Western countries, such as the UK, to escape civil unrest or poverty and to fill Britain's labour shortages. Although communities of immigrants formed in places like East London, immigration laws meant that many migrants were separated from their families and moved to the UK alone at first, causing further grief and loneliness. The sense of isolation on a community scale was also fueled by the racial violence against South Asian communities, such as Paki-bashing, which rose to prominence in the 1960’s. The isolation felt by immigrants is overlooked and ignored both within and outside of immigrant communities, and has led to excessive self-sufficiency and self-reliance amongst the diaspora. First generation immigrants did not have the resources, education, or support to access professional help due to language barriers, racial discrimination, and both British and South Asian cultural stigmas around mental health. Instead, they developed resilience rooted in silence and emotional suppression. In many cases this has led to emotionally unavailable parents who are unable to deal with their own emotional issues, as well as their children’s, resulting in another younger generation who are unable to resolve their trauma.


This can therefore lead to dysfunctional family dynamics, where children are unable to express themselves or ask for help. Children who see their parents living with hardships and making sacrifices to live in a different country can sometimes also feel guilty for burdening them and feel the need to repay a debt to their parents by making their own sacrifices. Guilt, language barriers, and cultural differences between the children and the parents can make it difficult for children to discuss their own issues to their parents. Unlike the previous generations, young people living in the UK have better access to mental health resources, but the need for mental health provision for older generations and people who do not speak English has also not disappeared.


I believe there is still a huge gap that needs to be addressed in the support provision for young people dealing with mental health problems attached to cultural experiences, including in schools where the counsellors may not be able to understand the experiences or mindsets of students from varying backgrounds. My own experiences with health and wellbeing provisions has made me see the need for diversity in the workforce for mental health care, and safeguarding and healthcare as a whole, very apparent.


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