Trauma in the ATSI Population

Why is trauma in the ATSI population so widespread?

transgenerational trauma aboriginal community

It is the result of severe and multiple chronic stress factors, deliberately inflicted over generations as the government attempted to alter cultural habits to form westernised communities.

These experiences have been occurring over many generations and may result in trauma by a generation quite removed from the events, passed from adults to children. Such intense trauma changes neural networks to avoidance patterns, resulting in over activation of the autonomic nervous system (van der Kolk, 2005).

Studies show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have great resilience and strengths: through their strong sense of cultural self-identity; attachment to their traditions; and social connections through their community.

When culture is lost to Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, they become dislocated from their culture, community and their land. This may impact attachment to caregivers, parenting and family functioning, community violence and psychological morbidity.

Trauma Across the Generations

Transgenerational trauma can be defined as severe, multiple, repeated and cumulative chronic stress occurring over many generations. It can be experienced as trauma by a generation quite removed from the events, passed from adults to children, in cyclic processes.

Transgenerational trauma has been shown to become embedded in the cultural memory of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders and passed on by the same mechanisms by which culture is transmitted, resulting in normalisation of mechanisms within that culture (Duran & Duran, 1995).

This can impact attachment to caregivers, parenting and family functioning, disconnection from family, culture and society. Children may witness the ongoing effect of the original trauma through the process of vicarious traumatisation in the form of ill health, family dysfunction, community violence, psychological morbidity and early mortality (De Maio et al., 2005).

For children, vicarious traumatisation violates safety needs, leading to a loss of sense of self. Adolescents may exhibit attachment difficulties, aggression, with links to suicide, alcoholism, physical inactivity, smoking and obesity.

Adults with this childhood history are more likely to develop: heart disease; cancer; stroke; diabetes; and liver disease (van der Kolk, 2007).

Many studies have shown the generational layers of trauma resulting from colonisation, within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Duran & Duran, 1995).

Atkinson (2012) states that traumatic events occur without control of the individual. It is the individual’s experience of the event which determines whether something is traumatic, not the event itself. The survivor’s beliefs about humanity and the goodness in people may be destroyed, affecting their identity, and impacting negatively on mind, body, soul and spirit (Atkinson, 2012).

Historically, healing practices for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were based around a rationale for the reason for the trauma: a retelling or re-enactment of the trauma in spoken or written form, dance, or song; and somatosensory experiences (through touch, for example).

These practices were portrayed within the family and clan ensuring an intensely relational experience, providing safety, control, and attachment with high levels of pain maximisation.  These practices are repetitive, rhythmic, relational and respectful, and have been shown to alter neural systems influencing cortical, limbic, diencephalic and brainstem systems. Sensory expression has been shown to overcome avoidance patterns in traumatised individuals (Collie, et al., 2006).

Treating Trauma in the ATSI population

Due to the difficulties identifying and verbalising experiences, and the storage of traumatic experiences as images and sensations, interventions using retelling of the story via dance, song touch, acting-out of the story through traditional methods have been shown to be effective for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (Malchiodi, 2008).

Externalisation through vision and sensations has been shown to help, by shifting traumatic experiences from the present into the past (Collie, Backos, Malchiodi & Spiegel, 2006). In trauma intervention, the process of externalising trauma memories is central in the process of relief and recovery (Malchiodi, 2008). For example, drawing has been shown to reduce anxiety, increase therapeutic alliance and facilitate memory retrieval (Gross & Haynes, 1998).

Creative treatments as proposed, have not been extensively studied to determine if they qualify as evidence-based practices for trauma intervention. However, Gil (2006) compared evidence-based practices in trauma intervention with creative treatments, finding both interventions use gradual exposure.

Furthermore, creative interventions are client-led, setting their own pace, depending on the needs for coping, the nature of the trauma, and cultural diversity. Comparatively, evidence-based practices like trauma-focused cognitive behaviour therapy (TF-CBT) have a specific agenda and set instructions for the client, making the treatment therapist-directed.  Studies have shown that Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders prefer education-based learning at their own pace, and not being told the rules (Frankland, 1994).

Collie, Backos, Malchiodi and Siegel (2006) reviewed creative interventions for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), finding emphasis on psychological safety, stress reduction, and opportunities for non-verbal expression and processing of trauma narratives through art. This form of intervention is a bottom-up perspective in that safety is addressed initially, and stories learned in one-on-one therapy can be shared in healing groups with their families and communities.

Cassandra Gist Psychologist BrisbaneAuthor: Cassandra Gist, BPsych (Hons), MPsych, MAPS.

Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist has a Masters in Health Psychology, and is able to treat clients aged from two years old right through to adulthood. She is experienced in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as well as children and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder.

To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist, try Online Booking – Loganholme or Online Booking – Mt Gravatt. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129, or Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422.