Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Transgenerational Trauma and Resilience: Improving Mental Health Counseling for Survivors of Hurricane Katrina

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Transgenerational Trauma and Resilience: Improving Mental Health Counseling for Survivors of Hurricane Katrina

Article excerpt

As disasters increase worldwide, there is greater need for effective and expedient disaster mental health response. The purpose of this paper is to present the etiology of transgenerational trauma to advance mental health counselors' understanding of the complex issues associated with trauma and disaster. The authors have woven literature from the field of trauma counseling with their own clinical experiences during deployment in post-Katrina New Orleans. The authors assert that mental health counselors can enhance clinical practice by using transgenerational trauma assessment and interventions as well as historical and contextual knowledge. A case example and recommendations are provided to demonstrate how to incorporate transgenerational trauma and resilience into clinical practice when working with disaster survivors.


In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was an unprecedented presentation of mental health issues that are anticipated to have long-term effects over the next decade or more (T. Iliff, personal communication, June 8, 2007). Counselors competent in disaster response are needed to provide expedient services to affected communities (Rogers, 2007). Globally, the need for mental health disaster relief services is rising due to the increase in natural and human-made disasters (Guha-Sapir, Hargitt & Hoyois, 2004; U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants [USCRI], 2006; Walter, 2005). Aggravating this phenomenon is the underlying concern that mental health counselors often fail to address transgenerational trauma (Danieli, 1998). This issue is particularly critical for socially marginalized clients (Burstow, 2003; Cross, 1998). We employ resilience theory as a lens for presentation of this issue as it allows clinicians to take into account client-defined risk and protective factors (Waller, 2001; Walsh, 2002). These factors are often ignored in traditional trauma counseling literature. The purpose of this paper is to introduce transgenerational trauma as an effective assessment and intervention approach for responding to disaster survivors. A case example from the disaster response activity in post-Katrina New Orleans is provided and five recommendations are offered to enhance disaster mental health counseling competence.


Mental health counseling is often guided by the American Psychiatric Association's (APA), Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (Eriksen & Kress, 2006; Mead, Hohenshil & Kusum, 1997; Seligman, 1999; White, 2002). Of particular interest to counselors providing post-disaster counseling is the influence of the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), first included in the DSM in 1980. Indeed, creation of the PTSD diagnosis legitimized trauma as a psychological stressor and also defined the nature of trauma (Halpern & Tramontin, 2007; Scaer, 2001). Further, the PTSD diagnosis articulated expected effects of trauma (Rothschild, 2000; van der Kolk & McFarlane, 1996), informed mental health treatment (Becker, 1995; Danieli, 1998; Eriksen & Kress; Herman, 1997), and provided insurance coverage and legal recourse for those who experienced a traumatic event (Burstow, 2005; Cosgrove, 2005; James & Gilliland, 2005; McLaughlin, 2002; White).

However, the DSM provides a somewhat limited view of trauma in that the criteria consider only the direct experience of a psychically dangerous event to be traumatic (APA, 2000; Burstow, 2005; Danieli, 1998). Critics of the PTSD definition have noted the minimization of individual perception (Rothschild, 2000) and the exclusion of experiences that are common in certain communities (Levine, 1997), including patriarchal violence experienced by women (Burstow, 2003, 2005). The individualistic focus in the current definition excludes trauma that is situated within a larger context (Ivey & Ivey, 1998). Despite revisions in the DSM, significant limitations within the PTSD criteria persist (Burstow, 2003; Halpern & Tramontin, 2007). …

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