Addressing Addiction & Trauma in Black Families

By Kent Reason

The long history of trauma in Black families stemming from generations of oppression has shaped the trends of substance abuse within the Black community.


Below, you can read about the meaning of intergenerational trauma, substance use disorder trends among Black Americans, barriers to treatment, and ways we can work together to fix the problem.


To effectively overcome treatment disparities in the Black population, healthcare providers must be able to recognize the deeply rooted trauma that may underlie addictive tendencies.


What Is Intergenerational Trauma?


Throughout American history, Black people have endured an array of traumatic experiences that have lived on through the generations within the family or community. It can be traced back to the traumas inflicted by slavery, systemic racism during the Jim Crow era, poverty, and racial violence. Even if a person has not directly experienced a traumatic event, they may still suffer the psychological effects of it. Over time, the burden of intergenerational trauma can shape how Black people see themselves and function within society, and can contribute to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.


How Trauma in Black Families Influences Substance Abuse


According to studies cited in The Washington Post, populations that have endured traumatic events throughout history may have alterations in their DNA that transfer to their children.

While additional study is necessary, these findings may point to the conclusion that traumatic events suffered by previous generations can alter development and chemical functioning in ways that increase the chances of behavioral health issues. Trauma can also impact the dynamics of a family and communication patterns, making drug and alcohol abuse more likely to emerge as an unhealthy coping mechanism. Daily stressors of discrimination and limited opportunities can also wear down mental health over time. Without proper access to support systems, people of any race or religion may resort to substances to numb their pain.


Drug Addiction Statistics in the Black Population


Recent data has shown that alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine are among the most used drugs in the Black community. While overall illicit drug use has declined among African Americans in recent years, notable disparities remain. Black people are also disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic and the rise of fentanyl in the illegal drug market, as they frequently lack adequate access to treatment and are arrested at far higher rates than white Americans.


Racial Inequalities in Addiction Treatment


Equal access to substance abuse treatment is elusive for many African Americans. When they do get the treatment they need, it tends to be lower quality, as counseling programs often fail to consider differences in culture and barriers facing Black clients. The shortage of addiction treatment providers in the U.S. who specialize in culturally sensitive services hampers people’s ability to achieve sobriety.


Barriers to Substance Use Treatment for Black Americans


There are several barriers to substance use treatment for Black Americans, most notably limited access to the affordable health insurance needed to pay for a rehab program. Mistrust of medical institutions due to racist policies of the past may also deter people from seeking the help they need. Additionally, very few recovery programs use trauma-informed care and examine the influence of intergenerational trauma. These factors, among others, contribute to lower rates of substance use disorder treatment among Black Americans.


Ways to Address Trauma and Addiction in Black Families


The systemic inequalities that have plagued the Black community for generations will not be undone in a day. Still, positive outcomes will emerge with increased awareness about intergenerational trauma in Black families, and expanding access to culturally competent trauma-focused treatment. Increasing education programs for Black youth may also help break the cycles of trauma early on in life.


Ultimately, change in the system will only happen when the public demands it from their elected representatives. Communities must be able to provide African American people the space to address their generational wounds. When this happens, addiction and trauma in Black families can be addressed sensitively and effectively.

Kent Reason is an editor and content specialist with Ark Behavioral Health, a substance use disorder treatment provider with locations in Massachusetts and Ohio. Ark offers an array of services for addiction and mental health, including multiple levels of care and evidence-based treatment options.

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