Reading 6: Trauma and grief

Introduction

This chapter discusses the way in which the policies and practices of the past, com¬pounded by current policies and experiences, exert negative psychological effects on Indigenous individuals, families and communities which manifest themselves in social and emotional distress and disadvantage. Indigenous Australians have been affected by extreme personal, collective, and cultural trauma, and the effects are cascading, cumulative and transgenerational. The effects of trauma in one generation are the causes of trauma in the next generation, creating a continuous cycle which is very difficult to break.

The symptoms of trauma are normal human responses to extraordinary nega¬tive events. Any group of people would display similar responses under similar circumstances.

Breaking the cycle of trauma is made much harder by the racism which many Indigenous Australians experience on a daily basis. This chapter discusses current psychological theories about racism and shows that racism is the 'oxygen' which keeps the pain of trans generational trauma alive and prevents the wounds from healing. Healing transgenerational trauma is a two-fold practice, involving the development of contemporary Indigenous healing practices and a deliberate and sustained effort on the part of non-indigenous Australians to challenge racism to prevent it being perpetuated through succeeding generations.

Shame and blame?

As you read this chapter, try not to feel ashamed or defensive about what has happened. Much of the content of this chapter can elicit a range of emotions, but that is not the aim¬the aim is to understand how trauma affects Indigenous individuals and communities. If we can understand how trauma works, we may be able to prevent the recurrence of human-made traumatisation.

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab

 

 

TransgenerationaL trauma

Indigenous Australians, individually and collectively, have been severely traumatised by the events and policies of the past 220 years. It is traumatic to see family members being shot or poisoned; it is traumatic when young children are taken away from their families and never seen again; it is traumatic to have your entire community relocated far away from your homeland and to be forced to live with people from other areas and cultural backgrounds. It is traumatic to experience individual and institutional racism almost on a daily basis. Having even one of these things happen is bad enough, but many Indigenous Australians have experienced all of these events.

Imagine that you saw your mother or brother being murdered. How would you feel? What would you do? Imagine that your baby or young child was suddenly taken away from you and you never saw them again or knew what happened to them. How would you feel? What would you do?

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab

 

Post-traumatic stress

People who have experienced severe trauma commonly suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the effects of which can be very long lasting. Symptoms can include the whole gamut of social, physical, and psychological disorders. For instance, war veterans commonly have nightmares about their war experiences for the rest of their lives. The effects on their daily lives, relationships, social interactions and friendships, and even their ability to find and maintain regular employment, can be devastating. Vietnam veterans, for example, have a much higher rate of physical and mental illness, substance abuse and suicide than the rest of the population (Dobson & Grayson, 1996).

As Judy Atkinson puts it in her landmark book Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines (Atkinson, 2002):

Victims of violence, and those who work to provide meaningful responses to their needs, should not view the traumatic symptoms as signs of personal weakness or mental illness ... The feelings and behaviours that come from traumatisation are the natural and predictable reactions of normal people ... to abnormal experiences ... defined here as a disaster, catastrophe or atrocity in which great violence is experienced.

A disaster, catastrophe or atrocity is a violent event, either natural or man-made, which causes great distress or destruction, a core wounding to the body/mind/soul! spirit of human beings.Words such asferocity, intensity,fierceness,force are associated with the violence of natural disasters. Words such as hostility, brutality, carnage and bloodshed are associated with a catastrophe or atrocity that has occurred because of the actions of humans. (pp.51-2)

There are a number of important points here. What happened to Indigenous Australians after the British settlers arrived was a man-made disaster, a catastrophe, an atrocity. Collectively and individually, they experienced hostility, brutality, carnage and bloodshed. Indeed, throughout much of the last 220 years, the colonisers fully expected that the Indigenous peoples would die out. It is a testament to their spirit and resilience that they not only survived but are now growing in numbers and strength.

Note also that Atkinson uses 'body/mind/soullspirit' as one word, to illustrate that Indigenous Australians never held the Western idea of the separation of body, mind, soul and spirit. Whatever happened to any part of body/mind/soullspirit affected their entire being.

Many people throughout the world have experienced severe trauma, at both individual and collective levels, even extending to genocide. However, there are important differences between the experiences of most traumatised groups now living in Australia and Indigenous Australians. For Indigenous Australians, the effects of traumatic events that occurred in the past are compounded by further traumas and other negative events that keep constantly occurring in the present. Traumatisation is not something that happened at some time in the past, it is continuing to occur every day. At a day-to-day level, Indigenous Australians are constantly the victims of racism and discrimination. They never have a chance to recover from anyone bad event or policy, because there are always new ones to try to cope with. Government policies are constantly changing, with major policy changes occurring perhaps as often as once every generation, so they never have a chance to adjust to a major new policy before the next one comes along, requiring a different response. This could be described as shell shock-repeated exposure to frequently recurring trauma eliminates the possibility of full recovery.

'Shell shock' is a military term which emerged in World War I to describe the fatigue, exhaustion and often psychiatric symptoms resulting from constant exposure to fear of being killed and from experiencing the horrific events of a war zone. Soldiers with shell shock were commonly sent home because they could no longer fight effectively. 'Battle fatigue' was the term used in World War II to describe similar reactions. 'Combat stress reaction' is the current term for this syndrome. Effects include psychological symptoms such as severe anxiety, depression, nervousness, sleeping disorders and nightmares, and physical reactions like extreme fatigue and lassitude, resulting in an inability to keep fighting.

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab

Collective trauma

Trauma affects the individuals who experience it, and trauma can also affect entire communities, compounding the individual effects. Judy Atkinson describes this as col¬lective or communal trauma. This is particularly likely to occur in highly communal and collectivist societies such as those of Indigenous Australians, in which every person is related because of the kinship system to every other person in the community. Furthermore, due to the holistic body/mind/soullspirit conception of being, the collective effects are not just psychological or physical, but cover the entire experience of the community:

Collective or communal trauma refers to traumatic experiences which are experienced by large groups of people, who may therefore share some of the psychological, cultural, physical, spiritual, social and mental distress that results. (p.53)

Hence, physical trauma can have, for instance, spiritual effects, and spiritual trauma (such as the destruction of culture) can have, for instance, physical effects.

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab

Destruction of Indigenous ways of dealing with trauma

Before colonisation Indigenous societies had well-developed systems and structures for dealing with either natural or man-made traumas, and highly sophisticated heal¬ing ceremonies and processes to restore the body/mind/soullspirit balance of each individual and the community. But from the very earliest days of British colonisation, these structures, developed over 50000 or more years, were dismantled and destroyed, as communities were decimated and scattered and the remaining fragments forbidden from practising traditional culture. This destruction occurred in a very short time, within literally only a few years. With no way of expressing, coming to terms with, and healing the traumas, the effects of trauma became compounded and internalised:

Collective trauma ... seeps slowly and insidiously into the fabric and soul of relations and beliefs of people as community. The shock of loss of self and community comes gradually. People, feeling bereaved, grieve for their loss of cultural surrounds, as well as for family and friends. Feeling victimised, the same people may also carry a deep rage at what has happened to them, but may be unable to express their anger at those they perceive to have violated their world and caused the death of their loved ones. They are not sure what to do, for often "both their inner compass and their outer maps for what is considered 'proper' behaviour" (Erikson, 1976:200) are lost. (Atkinson, 2002, pp. 53-4)

Effects of suppressing unresolved trauma

Compounded and internalised traumatisation cannot be fully suppressed, but finds expression in distorted forms of outward behaviour, such as anger, aggression and violence, and self-directed destructive behaviour such as alcohol and drug misuse and, more recently, high levels of suicide. Alcohol was introduced among Aboriginal communities in Sydney immediately after the First Fleet landed, but suicide was virtually unknown in Indigenous Australian societies until about twenty years ago (Greenhill, Stewart & Dix, 2008).

Many of the physical, social, and psychological problems that beset Indigenous communities are not abnormal, but rather are 'natural human reactions to traumatic loss' (Atkinson, 2002, p. 54). A similar set of symptoms can be found in other dis¬advantaged sectors of Australian society, such as the Vietnam veterans mentioned earlier or victims of child sexual abuse. Suffering extreme trauma, in a situation in which healing cannot occur, almost every normal person would experience symptoms such as these.

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab

Cultural trauma

Michael Halloran (2004) uses the term 'cultural trauma' to describe traumatisation and weakening of the culture as a whole. This is related to the collective trauma discussed by Judy Atkinson, but focuses on the effects on the culture itself.

Cultural trauma occurs when a dominating cultural group has an unequal power relationship with another cultural group with which it comes into contact. One culture dominates, conquers or colonises another and suppresses the cultural expression of the dominated group:

Dominant cultures are largely inclined to actively suppress minority cultural group practices and meanings; supposedly motivated by the need to assert the significance of their own cultural worldviews ... cultural trauma is a state wherein cultural knowledge and practices have been weakened to the extent that they fail in their capacity to imbue individual existence with meaning and value. (Halloran, 2004)

Remember the importance of worldview (chapter 2) in providing meaning and purpose? Through cultural trauma the worldview of the dominated group is destroyed and the individuals in the dominated group lose the basis of their existence and place in the world. When this happens, cultural norms become weakened. As Judy Atkinson puts it, the community loses its 'moral compass', its clear guidelines for moral behaviour, and its cultural support for enforcing moral behaviour and sanction¬ing unacceptable behaviour. Having lost its effective coping strategies, maladaptive coping strategies can 'become endemic to a society or even normative, increasing the likelihood that cultural trauma and its effects are carried forth into successive

Our Voices
Aboriginal and Torress Strait Islander Social Work
Edited by Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert and Down Bessarab