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The generational trauma of 2020

I've noticed more blog posts on my feeds talking about mental health, and more tweets talking about anxiety in the face of this year's challenges. I'm certainly feeling it too. This week I've been building a contingency plan for what happens if I have to take a leave of absence from work because of my mother's health, which has been an emotionally difficult task on top of an already emotionally challenging context.

2020 as a whole is a collective trauma. The thing about serious trauma is that it ripples. Its effects are felt in the lives of the people who lived through it; not just as they live through it, but forever. And then it's felt in their children. And finally, in their children.

My father is one of the youngest survivors of the Japanese concentration camps in Indonesia. He and his older siblings were kept alive by my grandmother. As a 12 year old, my aunt snuck out of the camp and swam through the sewers to find food for them to eat. My grandmother would gather snails and secretly cook them. Around them all - my grandmother, my aunts, my toddler father - was death and brutality. People in the camp were routinely tortured and murdered.

My grandmother wailed in her sleep every night until the day she died. The trauma certainly affected her children; my father has suffered from its effects in ways that he only became consciously aware of later in life. In turn, his anxieties affected his children - partially through the effect of his actions, but there is also significant evidence that trauma can be passed down epigenetically. My dad is both younger than most of his siblings and had children later in life, but I've seen the effects of this trauma spread to the fourth and fifth generations in my aunts' branches of the family.

The implications for families that have been split up through draconian immigration policies, or suffered at the hands of trigger-happy police, or been caught by a racist criminal justice system are obvious. The trauma of poverty, too, creates epigenetic changes that span generations. But during this terrible year, more of us than ever before have seen our relatives die or had our homes destroyed at the hands of natural disasters. We've lived under a kind of fear we thought was a thing of the past.

So, no wonder we're all feeling kind of terrible. The thing is, it won't just be for the moment. The impact of 2020 - and, yes, I'm afraid to say, 2021 too - is likely to be with many of us for the rest of our lives. If we're not careful, it'll be with our children, too, and their children.

The good news is that these traumatic effects can be reversed. Exercise, intense learning, and anti-depressants can help. But that implies that we'll all need systemic help: mental wellness support and a far stronger social safety net. Without this support, the hidden effects of the pandemic (and everything else that's happened this year) may be with us for a very long time to come.