Commentary: Intergenerational Trauma and Mental Health

By Bombay, Amy | Clinical Psychiatry News, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Commentary: Intergenerational Trauma and Mental Health


Bombay, Amy, Clinical Psychiatry News


Understanding the root of stress and trauma experienced by patients as individuals is a key charge of psychiatry. But patients also can experience psychological distress because of the traumatic experiences of previous generations. The mental health community must be prepared to treat patients who fall into the latter category.

My colleagues and I recently analyzed representative samples of First Nations adults and youth living on a reserve in Canada. We found that the number of previous generations in which families were forced to attend Indian residential schools was cumulatively linked with higher levels of psychological distress and suicidal ideation among those who did not attend themselves (Transcultural Psychiatry. 2014;51:320-38).

The forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes for the purposes of assimilation occurred over generations in many countries around the world. In Canada, these government-mandated church-run residential schools ran from the mid1800s until 1996, and resulted in gen erations of indigenous children being exposed to chronic neglect, abuse, trauma, racism, and cultural shaming ("Honouring the Truth: Reconciling for the Future," Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).

Some of our more recent analyses revealed that having a family history of residential school attendance has been linked to a greater likelihood of early-onset mental health symptoms, which in turn, has been tied to an increased risk of suicidality and other unique outcomes that have implications for treatment and prevention. Furthermore, other negative outcomes experienced by indigenous peoples, such as low family income and limited educational opportunities, also appear to be involved in the intergenerational transmission of residential school trauma.

Against this backdrop in Canada, we have a prevailing sense of blaming the victim that is counterproductive to healing. According to a 2014 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), 1,017 indigenous women and girls were murdered between 1980 and 2012 across Canada. About one-third of the women died as a result of physical beating, and more than 90% of the victims had a "previous relationship" with the person who killed them, according to the RCMP report. Yet, despite evidence to the contrary, the prime minister of Canada shared his view last year that those staggering numbers should be viewed as a criminal issue and not a "sociological phenomenon" (CBC News, Aug. 21, 2014).

Members of other groups whose previous generations also were exposed indirectly to unspeakable trauma include Americans of African descent, Native Americans, and adult offspring of Holocaust survivors. …

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