Healing Black trauma necessitates universal health care

Discounting Medicare for all makes the US Congress complicit in Black child abuse.

In March, progressive members of the US Congress introduced a bill to create Medicare for all [File: Jim Watson/AFP]

I remember the sound of shattering glass breaking our complacency the day a family member pushed me through a window. As middle-graders, we were both accustomed to physical violence, fighting viciously, which often left me with bruises.

The language of the #MeToo movement helped me understand that the sexual trauma I experienced in my childhood was another form of violence. An adult in my life did not force themselves upon me, but frequently masturbated in front of me. Given my limited understanding of abusers’ motivations and mental conditions, as an 11-year-old I could only deduce that I deserved what was happening to me. I imagined that if only I were stronger, I could have stopped it all. I could have won the physical fight against my physical abuser, and I could have told the sexual abuser in my life “no, this is wrong.”

Yet, in the same way a disempowered child cannot be expected to win against a powerful abuser, Black parents in the United States cannot be expected to combat the overwhelming constraints limited access to mental healthcare services places on their home life. Lack of access to these services hampers their ability to protect their children from violence in the home and society without government intervention.

In March, progressive members of the US Congress introduced a bill to create Medicare for all, a broad government-run health insurance programme. Although efforts to pass such legislation continue, congressional support for universal health care is yet to be institutionalised.

However, not implementing Medicare for all could perpetuate untreated mental conditions which correlate with the disproportionate abuse of Black children.

As a 36-year-old Black woman sociologist, I have spent the last three years learning how to integrate traumatic experiences into my life as a writer, antiracism trainer, and social justice advocate. But for most of my adult life, I did not have access to insurance that allowed me quality mental healthcare from a licensed provider. I grew up believing that my trauma was something that would be healed through churchgoing and self-help books. Given that I had no examples of trauma victims in my life that had the resources or perspective to seek out licensed help, I saw people I loved struggle to prevent their traumatic experiences from devastating their relationships and life chances.

Once a high-paying job afforded me quality mental healthcare, I was able to secure a two-month medical leave, life coaching, psychotherapy, and creative arts therapy on an uncommonly consistent basis – there were some weeks I literally spoke with my therapist every day. But it was not until I zoomed out and placed my experiences in a broader social context that I began to understand the policy constraints that make stories of my trauma so common, but stories of my healing so rare for Black childhood trauma survivors.

It is worth noting that Mental Health America research indicates that Black Americans are not more likely than whites to have mental health conditions. Rather, their researchers find that “the historical Black and African American experience in America has and continues to be characterized by trauma and violence more often than for their White counterparts and impacts emotional and mental health of both youth and adults.”

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), US Census Bureau data shows that “in 2005, African Americans were 7.3 times more likely to live in high poverty neighborhoods with limited to no access to mental health services.”  The 2016 report by the US Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities noted: “African American children make up approximately 16 percent of the child population in this country, but 30 percent of the child abuse and neglect fatalities.”

Although “culture of poverty” scholars in the past have posited that Black communities are pathologically violent and sexually unhinged, research published by the National Library of Medicine argues that larger social forces and policies shape Black child neglect and assault.

Historians have no evidence to support the idea that Black people are culturally predisposed to creating broken homes. Physical punishment of children existed in precolonial African societies, but according to a paper authored by Stacy Patton and published by the APA: “As colonization, slavery and genocidal violence made life harsher for these groups, parenting practices also grew harsher.”

Patton also reflected on her own abuse as a Black girl in her 2017 New York Times oped “Stop Beating Black Children”. She emphasised that physical punishment within Black families is rooted in European Judeo-Christian beliefs explaining: “It is a European idea that children are ‘born in sin’ and should have the devil beaten out of them with a ‘rod of correction’. That brutality cascaded across other cultures through slavery, colonialism and religious indoctrination.”

Black families alone cannot break a cycle created by an imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society that is by definition too powerful for any group to overcome alone. As I learned through diligent therapy, I was never just healing from child abuse, I was saying what all Black trauma survivors must tell themselves to move forward with their lives: “This cycle ends with me.”

A new generation of Black people is healing in a society that denies its complicity in shaping intergenerational trauma. But the alarming rates of abuse and neglect caused by political indifference will continue until universal healthcare is implemented and the US Congress joins Black survivors in saying: “This cycle ends with us.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.