ⓘ Historical trauma, as used by social workers, historians, and psychologists, refers to the cumulative emotional harm of an individual or generation caused by a ..


ⓘ Historical trauma

Historical trauma, as used by social workers, historians, and psychologists, refers to the cumulative emotional harm of an individual or generation caused by a traumatic experience or event. Historical Trauma Response refers to the manifestation of emotions and actions that stem from this perceived trauma.

According to its advocates, HTR is exhibited in a variety of ways, most prominently through substance abuse, which is used as a vehicle for attempting to numb pain. This model seeks to use this to explain other self-destructive behaviour, such as suicidal thoughts and gestures, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, violence and difficulty recognising and expressing emotions. Many historians and scholars believe the manifestations of violence and abuse in certain communities are directly associated with the unresolved grief that accompanies continued trauma.

Historical trauma, and its manifestations, are seen as an example of Transgenerational trauma though the existence of transgenerational trauma itself is disputed. For example, a pattern of maternal abandonment of a child might be seen across three generations, or the actions of an abusive parent might be seen in continued abuse across generations. These manifestations can also stem from the trauma of events, such as the witnessing of war, genocide, or death. For these populations that have witnessed these mass level traumas, several generations later these populations tend to have higher rates of disease.

First used by social worker and mental health expert Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart in the 1980s, scholarship surrounding historical trauma has expanded to fields outside of the Lakota communities Yellow Horse Brave Heart studied. Yellow Horse Brave Hearts scholarship focused on the ways in which the psychological and emotional traumas of colonisation, relocation, assimilation, and American Indian boarding schools have manifested within generations of the Lakota population. Yellow Horse Brave Hearts article "Wakiksuyapi: Carrying the Historical Trauma of the Lakota," published in 2000, compares the effects and manifestations of historical trauma on Holocaust survivors and Native American peoples. Her scholarship concluded that the manifestations of trauma, although produced by different events and actions, are exhibited in similar ways within each afflicted community.

Other significant original research on the mechanisms and transmission of intergenerational trauma has been done by scholars such as Daniel Schechter, whose work builds on the pioneers in this field such as: Judith Kestenberg, Dori Laub, Selma Fraiberg, Alicia Lieberman, Susan Coates, Charles Zeanah, Karlen Lyons-Ruth, Yael Danieli, Rachel Yehuda and others. Although each scholar focuses on a different population – such as Native Americans, African Americans, or Holocaust Survivors – all have concluded that the mechanism and transmission of intergenerational trauma is abundant within communities that experience traumatic events. Daniel Schechters work has included the study of experimental interventions that may lead to changes in trauma-associated mental representation and may help in the stopping of intergenerational cycles of violence.

Joy DeGruys book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, analyzes the manifestation of historical trauma in African-American populations, and its correlation to the lingering effects of slavery. In 2018, Dodging Bullets, the first documentary film to chronicle historical trauma in Indian Country, was released. It included interviews with scientist Rachel Yehuda, sociologist Melissa Walls, and Anton Treuer along with first hand testimonies of Dakota, Lakota, Ojibwe and Blackfeet tribal members.


1. Manifestation

Historical Trauma HT, or Historical Trauma Response HTR, can manifest itself in a variety of psychological ways. However, it is most commonly seen through high rates of substance abuse, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, suicide, domestic violence, and abuse within afflicted communities. The effects and manifestations of trauma are extremely important in understanding the present-day conditions of afflicted populations.

Within Native American communities, high rates of alcoholism and suicide have direct correlation to the violence, mistreatment, and abuses experienced at boarding schools, and the loss of cultural heritage and identity these institutions facilitated. Although many present-day children never experienced these schools first-hand, the "injuries inflicted at Indian boarding schools are continuous and ongoing," affecting generations of Native peoples and communities.

Colonial oppressors like Australia and Canada have issued formal apologies for their involvement in the creation and implementation of boarding schools that facilitated and perpetuated historical trauma. Australias Bringing Them Home report and Canadas Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada both detailed the "experiences, impacts, and consequences" of government-sponsored boarding schools on Indigenous communities and children. Both reports also detail the problems facing Indigenous populations today, such as economic and health disparities, and their connection to the historical trauma of colonization, removal, and forced assimilation.


2. Treatment

Treatment of HT must repair the afflicted person or communities connection with their culture, values, beliefs, and self-image. It takes the forms of individual counseling or therapy, spiritual help, and group or entire community gatherings, which are all important aspects in the foundations of the healing process. Treatment should be aimed at a renewal of destroyed culture, spiritual beliefs, customs, and family connections, and a focus on reaffirming ones self-image and place within a community. Without proper treatment and understanding, historical trauma will continue to plague generations of afflicted communities.

Particular attention should be given to the needs and empowerment of peoples who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. Social workers and activists should promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients, individuals, families, groups, and communities. In order for advocacy to be accurate and helpful to the afflicted populations, social workers should understand the cultural diversity, history, culture, and contemporary realities of clients.

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