Ancestral Trauma and Teen Suicide - What You Should Know
“I just want to fuckin die.”
Coming from the mouth of a 12-year old, this is a devastating thing to hear. It is something that we might expect from someone a little older. Perhaps someone that had had the chance to live, to know more about the struggles, pitfalls, devastations that can come with life.
I’ve spent the last 15 years working with teens and young adults as a mentor, teacher, ally. Over the years this has grown into Tending the Fires, an organization I created to help people of all ages heal from the wounds that make them want to snuff out the spark that keeps them alive, that keeps them going.
The 12-year old I’m talking about was a friend of one of my mentees. I say “was” because she followed through with it. A few months ago, this girl, with a full life of infinite possibilities and potential, took her own life.
According to the CDC, suicide rates are rising at an alarming rate. In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans ages 10 and up died by suicide. Look at that again. Ages 10 and up. Let that sink in.
Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults ages 10 to 35. These rates have risen sharply, by 30%, since 1999.
What We Don’t Know Can Kill Us
As these rates rise, one of the alarming things to some people is learning that there are no social or cultural indicators that define the groups most likely to commit suicide. Suicide does not discriminate based on race, class, or social status. It is growing across all communities, spreading like wildfire.
So, what is causing this increase in youth suicide?
Our children and teens are the indicators of the health of our society. They are the canaries in the coal mine, so to speak. And the coal mine is poisoning everyone.
For the last few centuries we have become increasingly isolated from our environment, our ancestors, each other, and any type of spiritual connection. Living in a world based on materialism has created a vacuum in our sense of purpose. As we increasingly see people that have “achieved success” committing suicide in the media, the fact that our entire social value structure is based on empty materialist bullshit is hitting home in the youngest members of our communities.
At the same time, the decision to keep silent about the wounds that we carry, to pretend our lives are somewhere on a spectrum between fine and amazing is only made worse by the influence of social media.
We’ve been brought up in a culture that values image over substance, material possessions over connection, scandal over unity, greed over collaboration, destruction over development.
In the rush to cultivate the outer image of success, for generations we have disregarded the growth and healing of the individual and the community in favor of false appearances of happiness. In short, our ancestors have passed on generations of unhealed wounds to us. We’ve passed them down to our own children.
How Science is Catching Up
I’ve spent most of my life studying healing traditions from indigenous perspectives. Since I was a kid I was fascinated with the rites, rituals, and healing methods of indigenous peoples. Growing up in the Southwest, and having an ancestral connection to the Apache people, I was obsessed with anything I could learn about ritual, healing, and shamanism from the tribes of the Americas.
One of the things that has greatly influenced my life is the realization that we all carry the untended wounds of our ancestors. Every single one of us is carrying the energy of our ancestors’ wounds. Add to that the experiences we have that directly impact us in traumatic and harmful ways, and you get an emotional burden that destroys your ability to fully develop as a human being, to live a life that inspires and nourishes you, and to create genuine connections with others. Throw on top of that our cultural grief illiteracy and the unrelenting impulse to put up an image of having your shit together in life. It’s a perfect storm for devastation of the soul.
Indigenous cultures use the images of their worldview to describe these things. They refer to them as curses, ghosts, wraiths. They are unseen energies that devastate and destroy a person. They seem to have no direct connection to events in a person’s physical life. In our society that leads to whatever convenient diagnosis can be found in the DSM 5, followed by the prescription pill that big-pharma is pushing the most at the time. The root causes are never dealt with.
Nowadays science is starting to catch up. The field of epigenetics is demonstrating how trauma affects the myelination of chromosomes in our DNA. When a person experiences a traumatic event, it literally changes their DNA. That DNA is then passed on to their children. Their children, without knowing how or why, experience the emotional backlash of the unhealed trauma. They inherit the wounds without knowing the causes.
Sounds like a curse, doesn’t it? These curses are killing our kids. Isn’t that what they’ve always done in the old stories, too?
What can we do?
First of all, acknowledge that we are all wounded. We all carry the wounds of our ancestors. None of us exempt. And none of us is free from the responsibility to our future generations.
Recent research on the nature of trauma also demonstrates that trauma is embedded in our bodies. It is not solely in our heads like we’ve become accustomed to thinking. Psychoanalysis has led to a culture of believing that talking shit out is all that is needed to heal it. It simply isn’t true. The deepest wounds you carry are in many cases preverbal. They exist in the places of your consciousness that can’t be reached by words. In Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, he addresses the importance of involving the body in healing from trauma: personal, intergenerational, or historical.
Intact cultures have rituals and ceremonies for this purpose. Healing rituals in these cultures serve the dual purpose of helping individuals and the whole community heal as one. They address the importance of the individual’s healing for the wellbeing of the entire community. So they reinforce the place of the individual within the community, while at the same time letting the experience of the individual draw out the untended wounds of the community members. This way the ritual helps the entire community metabolize untended rage, fear, and sorrow.
Rituals involve the body more than the mind. Their power is in the acknowledgement of all the layers of creation that go into the creating and supporting one individual life. Many of us are separated from our ancestral roots by generations of persecution, indoctrination, and institutionalized racism and shame. We’ve lost their rituals long ago. But it is on us to create new rituals for healing. We can perhaps learn from those that have remained among intact cultures, but this also misses the mark and often leads to gross misinterpretation and misappropriation of the sacred beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples.
What we’re tasked with doing is creating culture. Starting with getting to know where we are. You can do this by gathering a group of friends, designating the elements of the ritual, invoking your ancestors, and allowing the grief to flow. I know, that sounds simple. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just has to begin. For the future of our children. For the future of humanity.
Rituals increase in complexity with time. It is our natural human inclination to elaborate and beautify our practices. If you have any questions on how to get started contact me. It is the purpose of Tending the Fires. It is the purpose of my life.