Dr. Ann BullockDr. Ann Bullock

Dr. Carrie JohnsonDr. Carrie Johnson

Historic Trauma May Be Causing Today's Health Crisis

In both programs in Indian Country Diaries, Native health care professionals working on opposite sides of the continent make remarkably similar statements.

In Cherokee, North Carolina, Dr. Ann Bullock says, "There's been an unusual amount of trauma that has happened to Indian people and there are very clear physiologic as well as behavioral responses to trauma. Historical trauma is a critical perspective for understanding that."

In Los Angeles, Dr. Carrie Johnson says, "A lot of our children that we see, for example, have been through not only one trauma but often multiple traumas in their life, in terms of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. But then when we look at multi-generational trauma, we look at what has happened to their parents, or what has happened to their grandparents, or their great-grandparents, and how that has been passed on from generation to generation."

How can something that happened scores or even hundreds of years ago still cause specific health problems within Native communities?

The answer comes from the relatively new understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It wasn't until 1980 that psychiatrists who had been working with Vietnam veterans convinced their colleagues to add PTSD to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In earlier wars, doctors had noticed what they called "shell shock" in soldiers, but they didn't have a very good idea how to treat the condition, let alone the notion that it was an actual disorder or disease.

The affect of trauma passed from one generation to the next is now understood as one of the causes of a series of social problems in Indian Country.

Click here to watch a video clip, drawn from both films, about historic trauma.

Since then, researchers realized that survivors of torture, rape, natural disasters and man-made disasters — like airplane crashes or the terrorist attacks of September 11th — shared symptoms with veterans suffering from PTSD. A traumatic event provoked intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

It is not difficult to imagine how the survivors of the Cherokee Trail of Tears — where thousands of people were forcibly marched 800 miles and where 5,000 died — undoubtedly felt the same intense fear, helplessness and horror. And virtually every tribe in the U.S. has their own story of relocation and warfare, has their own traumatic stress.

Other researchers realized that trauma is often multigenerational. Survivors of childhood sexual or physical abuse often become the perpetrators of the same types of abuse as adults. And as research into PTSD continued, it was shown that the disorder can produce high rates of violence, alcohol and substance abuse, anxiety disorders and depression.

So, researchers began looking for PTSD in Native American populations. The evidence was there. In one large study of two reservations, Indians survived physical attacks, witnessed traumatic events, or experienced trauma to loved ones much more often than the general population.

Urban Indian women may experience even higher rates of trauma. A study of Native American women living in New York City found that over 65 percent had experienced some form of interpersonal violence. Of that group, 28 percent reported childhood physical abuse, 48 percent reported rape and 40 percent reported a history of domestic violence.

"When people have been traumatized, they pass it on," says Dr. Bullock. "The vector of disease transmission, if you will, is parenting. It's not because parents don't want to try or because they're not trying because they don't care. It's because they can't."

But there is hope. In the worst cases, new antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs have helped patients deal with symptoms like severe depression, anxiety, substance abuse and panic disorder. Then, counseling can be added to the treatment regimen.

Group therapy sessions — like the reconciliation sessions that the Grant family members were going through in Spiral of Fire — have proven to be effective in treating PTSD. Individual counseling has also proven effective. The goal of the counseling is to bring the trauma out into the open where it can be dealt with.

Many Native counselors will also bring traditional tribal ceremonies and healers into the counseling process. Almost every tribe has a concept and often a word that describes "being in a good way" through traditional values.

  • In Ojibwe or Anishnabe the word is Bimadziwin, roughly translated as "the good life path."
  • In Cree it's Miyowichehtowin, or "having good relations."
  • In Iroquois it's Shen-nen Kowa, or "maintaining peace between parties."
  • In Navajo it's Hozho, or "walking in beauty."
  • In Cherokee it's Duyukdv, or "living in truth or dignity, traveling the Red Road."

The traditional ceremonies restoring these native values can be powerful tools in healing historic trauma.

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