The following was written by and from the perspective of Joseph Nguyen.
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.
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