Historical Trauma

“We are like the tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber. The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burnt, but inside the tree, the sap is still flowing and under the ground, the roots are still strong. Like the tree, we have endured the flames and yet we still have the power to be reborn.” Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann

Unknown-2In indigenous populations of Australia and other countries, intergenerational – or historical – trauma has arisen as a result of the historical experiences of colonisation (and associated violence and control), forcible removal of children, and loss of culture.

The trauma and grief arising from these events were not resolved at the time, but passed down unwittingly through the generations by peoples’ behaviours and thought patterns.

This trauma has been worsened by bureaucratic interventions that have created an increasing dependency on the state, intensifying feelings of victimisation and enforcing the beliefs of being powerless to change destructive circumstances.

Expressions of historical trauma in Aboriginal people can be seen in: adults who feel inadequate in their day-to-day functioning: poor physical and psychological health and much lower life expectancy; the escalation in addiction to alcohol and other substances which are used as a coping mechanism; the increase in domestic violence across generations; the self-harm, suicide and risk-taking that occurs when people can find no meaning to their existence and have no sense of purpose for their day-to-day activities.

The concept of historical trauma was initially developed in Canada and the USA in the 1980s to explain the seeming unending cycle of trauma and despair in their communities. However, it was some time before Australia grasped the importance of historical trauma. The work of Professor Judy Atkinson was seminal in this regard.

In 2008, the impact of historical trauma and the necessity for its healing were emphasised by the Australian Human Rights Commission in their 2008 Social Justice Report, ‘Beyond the Apology – an agenda for healing’. This report went on to say:

“All Indigenous peoples have been touched by trauma in some way. All Indigenous peoples deserve the opportunity to work through this trauma to heal…”

Sadly, six years on, few Aboriginal people are being given the opportunity to heal. Australian health, social care and criminal justice systems continue to manage the symptoms of historical trauma, e.g. addiction, rather than address the core underlying problem. As a result, man Aboriginal people are disempowered and experience feelings of hopelessness.

This situation is ironic, given that we have the knowledge to heal historical trauma and its consequences. In fact, many Aboriginal people do have coping mechanisms, skills and knowledge, and they’ve been healing themselves for years in their struggle to rise above historical trauma.

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