Intergenerational Historical Trauma
The year 2020 has been one of the most challenging in the history of the world. Apart from the obvious threat posed by COVID-19, the pandemic has uncovered several social ills such as inequality, poverty, corruption and has brought back to the public light the continuing wave of racism that exists in the United States (US) and the world. It is impossible to ignore the most recent events of racial violence where members of the African American, Black, Asian and Asian American communities have been unscrupulously attacked and annihilated by people who have abused their privileges and power.
These are just symptoms of a deep and centuries-old problem. According to the American Psychological Association, a trauma is an emotional response to a negative event such as an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Long-term reactions include emotional and psychological damage, painful memories of the event, problems in relationships with others, and even physical symptoms.
Many times, people who experience trauma find it difficult to continue a normal life. Intergenerational historical trauma (IHT) is the experience of a trauma, whether individual or collective, where it passes from one generation to another, from grandparents to children, from those children to the grandchildren of the family and therefore to future generations until someone decides to break the cycle. In the history of the United States and the world, we have seen several examples that result in historical and cultural traumas such as the Holocaust, the slavery of blacks in the US, police abuse of black and other minority communities, the genocide in Rwanda and the stories of thousands of indigenous and native adults from the North Pole who lived the experience of boarding schools in their childhood.
Intergenerational Historical Trauma has also been a consequence of the colonization processes of a community or country. Among the characteristics of surviving this type of experience we find feelings of fear, shame and silence. For American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Canadians, IHT has its roots in a childhood where they were separated from their family in the middle of the night, they were punished when they spoke their native language, they were prohibited from wearing their clothing and practices of their traditions and culture.
One of the cruelest phrases, coined by Captain Richard Pratt in the late 1800s and when Native American colonization in North America was at its peak was “Kill the Indian, and save the child (or man).” The purpose was to distance the indigenous from their culture, thus, slowly killing their identity and that of their future generations. This was and is how the genocide of many indigenous peoples of the Americas was carried out. In a study by Bezo (Ottawa 2015), he and his colleagues found that the transgenerational effects of trauma are not only limited to the psychological, but they are also seen at the family, social, cultural, neurobiological, and possibly genetic levels.
On the other hand, in recent decades IHT has begun to be observed clinically and honestly. Understanding that the first step in dealing with trauma is talking. Several initiatives have been tried and have shown very positive results to help communities and individuals affected by IHT. Some of these practices include family therapy, substance use prevention programs, fostering children’s connection with their elders and bringing back culture and traditions.
Also, revitalizing native languages at the primary school level and in universities, the acknowledgement from the church and the state of their roles in IHT and the creation of programs and economic resources to support communities that face their effects.
It is highly beneficial to provide spaces where affected people or communities can talk about the issue and receive help for the different effects on emotional, mental and physical health that have arisen as a result of these traumas. Finally, creating prevention programs, using tools for effective communication, appropriate education for children, educating against racism and in favor of equity are some of the tools to break the cycle.
Dr. Samarys Seguinot Medina is a Boricua from the Archipelago of Puerto Rico! A public health and environmental scientist and resident of Anchorage, Alaska.