We will never know how many people over millennia have suffered from tragedies that continued through generations.
Prehistoric parents, who were killed by a wild animal they were hunting in the hope of feeding their children, may have been among the first humans to set in train the process.
Perhaps their young accepted it as part of life. Perhaps they were part of larger group that took them in. Perhaps they were just abandoned. Perhaps they may have had wise women to counsel them or perhaps they suffered a trauma which they carried forward first as warning tales and then as myth to their children and their children’s children.
In modern times we know that such losses and tragedy can precipitate what we now call intergenerational trauma. But we should not be so arrogant as to assume that past generations did not suffer the same thing just because they had no name for it.
When Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price at the National Press Club dismissed Australia’s post-settlement history of violence she was not only dismissing all the generations of First Nations people who have been massacred, poisoned and had their children forcibly taken away she was also dismissing the trauma the generations which followed suffered.
Amy Marschall, a psychologist, in 2022 defined intergenerational trauma as the trauma that is passed from a trauma survivor to their descendants. She said people experiencing intergenerational trauma may experience symptoms, reactions, patterns, and emotional and psychological effects from trauma experienced by previous generations (not limited to just parents or grandparents).
“This can occur if a parent experienced abuse as a child or Adverse Childhood Experiences and the cycle of trauma and abuse impacts their parenting. Intergenerational trauma can also be the result of oppression, including racial trauma or other systemic oppression.
“The effects of intergenerational trauma have been documented in descendants of refugees, residential schools, and Holocaust survivors, demonstrating that this type of trauma continues to impact populations for generations after a collective traumatic event has occurred”, she said.
Perhaps the best attested examples of such trauma are from the Holocaust. The Wiesel Centre for Jewish Studies says: “The trauma inflicted upon Holocaust survivors is not limited to those who directly experienced the event” and provides an exhaustive bibliography on the condition covering effects such as the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), how it affects second and third generation survivors as well as describing possible therapies for the afflicted.”
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) and the Healing Foundation in 2018 conducted a comprehensive analysis of the social and economic impacts being felt by Stolen Generations members and their descendants. At the time there were17,000 surviving Indigenous Australians who were removed from their families.
Richard Weston, the Healing Foundation CEO, told the ABC (15/8/2018) that: “This is the first time we’ve had a large data set to prove the link between forcible removal of children and the real-life experience of intergenerational trauma — like family violence, suicide and mental health issues.”
He said that compared to other Indigenous Australians Stolen Generations members were: three times more likely to have been jailed in the past five years and almost twice as likely to rely on welfare payments or experience violence.
“They experience higher levels of adversity in relation to most of the 38 health and welfare outcomes that were looked at,” Mr Weston said.
The report also found that descendants of Stolen Generations members also face poorer health and social outcomes compared to other Indigenous Australians and relatives of Stolen Generations members were almost twice as likely to experience discrimination and violence, according to the report.
The problem goes far beyond First Nations Australians and the Holocaust.
In February 2019 Tori DeAngelis, in the American Psychological Association journal recounted how in the mid- to late 2000s, Brent Bezo and his wife were living in Ukraine, when Bezo, a Canadian doctoral psychology student, began noticing a kind of social hostility and mistrust among the population.
In his conversations with people, Bezo heard references to the Holodomor, the mass starvation of millions of Soviet Ukrainians from 1932 to 1933, an intentional genocide orchestrated by Stalin.
He then conducted a qualitative pilot study of people from three generations of 15 Ukrainian families: those who had lived through the Holodomor, their children and their grandchildren. People spontaneously shared what they saw as transgenerational impacts from that time, including “risky health behaviours, anxiety and shame, food hoarding, overeating, authoritarian parenting styles, high emotional neediness on the part of parents and low community trust and cohesiveness.
“Each generation seemed to kind of learn from the previous one, with survivors telling children, ‘Don’t trust others, don’t trust the world,’”
Researchers studying Native American and Canadian populations are finding similar broad effects among children and grandchildren of survivors of massive cultural oppression.
In a 2014 review paper in Transcultural Psychiatry psychologist Amy Bombay, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax Nova Scotia, and colleagues examined studies looking at intergenerational effects of Indian residential schools, institutions run by the Canadian government from the 1880s until the mid-1990s. Eliminating the ‘Indian problem” was the aim of the schools, according to original government texts. The schools provided a substandard education and taught native children to be ashamed of their languages, cultural beliefs and traditions.
Two large-scale national surveys included in the review—the First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey and the Aboriginal Peoples Survey—found that children and in some cases grandchildren of those who attended the schools were more likely to report psychological distress and suicide attempts, to have learning difficulties and problems in school and to contract hepatitis C through drug use than those whose parents had not attended such schools.
What is the process which brings this about? It is obviously multi-faceted but it is also linked to chronic stress—particularly that which drives you into survival mode and affects not only you but your family.
If you want a description of how this has come about in Australia there is ample evidence in colonial and post-colonial records; 19th and 20th century newspapers; a vast literature from authors such as Henry Reynolds and many others; and, the memories of generations of First Nations Australians.
There appear to be two possibilities about Senator Price’s claims. Price either doesn’t know the historical truth and should find it out – or she is peddling fake news.
The blog is grateful to his friend Gary Max for research assistance.