Intergenerational trauma.

 Rainbow Angel: Junitta Valak. 2008.

Australian Artist Junitta Vallak has kindly offered her work for inclusion in my new book. Junitta has been a long standing member of the Peace Chamber Movement, which reached its height in the 1970s in light of the nuclear arms race and the threat of a total global destruction.   In discussions with Junitta we both agreed that this kind of global threat has had a profound psychological impact on the security and stability of individuals, whereby it reveals another aspect of the ever  increasing post-traumatic stress disorder.


Trauma seriously affects psychological and biological development. There have been many studies over the past three decades that have helped in our understanding of how the brain works and how trauma hinders the developmental processes. Trauma is a global problem that impacts the health and well-being of millions of people and it underscores a lot of negative human behaviour that perpetuates pain on a world scale. Today, the study of psychological trauma is accompanied by an explosion of knowledge about how experience shapes the central nervous system and the formation of identity, or what we call the self.  The developments in the neurosciences, developmental psychopathology and information processing have contributed to our understanding of how brain function is shaped by experience and that life in and of itself can continually transform the body and mind.  The study of trauma has probably been the most important area of study for helping to develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between the emotional, cognitive, social and biological forces that have shaped our human evolution and there is still a long way to go and much more to be explored.

So far, many of the studies have been around the high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and these have been extended into  early experiences in childhood. We know for instance, that certain experiences can put in place psychological narratives that have an impact in physiology and decision making. We know that most experience is automatically processed beyond our awareness.  In other words, behaviours generally arise from the unconscious and rational thinking has only a limited influence on the operation of these unconscious (sub-cortical) processes.  We know that most of the problems of traumatized people are caused by replaying the traumatic events of the past.  Drugs and therapy have only limited prospects in assisting these preconditioned scenarios and there is a high level of relapse from current therapeutic practices.  The suicide rates have soared.

Data from the National Vital Statistics System, (a collaboration between the National Centre for Health Statistics of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and each US state), provides the best estimate of suicides for United States and it can be used as a guide for all western nations whose lifestyle is based on a continued expansion of economic productivity over and above human well-being.


Considerable debate exists about the reason for the heightened risk of suicide in trauma survivors. Whereas some studies suggest that suicide risk is higher among those who experienced trauma due to the symptoms of PTSD (8-10), others claim that suicide risk is higher in these individuals because of related psychiatric conditions (11,12). However, a study analyzing data from the National Co-morbidity Survey, a nationally representative sample, showed that PTSD alone out of six anxiety diagnoses was significantly associated with suicidal ideation or attempts (13). While the study also found an association between suicidal behaviours and both mood disorders and antisocial personality disorder, the findings pointed to a robust relationship between PTSD and suicide after controlling for co-morbid disorders. A later study using the Canadian Community Health Survey data also found that respondents with PTSD were at higher risk for suicide attempts after controlling for physical illness and other mental disorders.


Overall, men have significantly higher rates of suicide than women and there is an extraordinarily high rate of suicide for veterans.  From 1999-2010, the suicide rate in the US population among males was 19.4 per 100,000, compared to 4.9 per 100,000 in females. Based on the most recent US data available, in the fiscal year 2009, the suicide rate among male Veteran VA users was 38.3 per 100,000, compared to 12.8 per 100,000 in females. [i]

Many suicides are not reported and it can be very difficult to determine whether or not a particular individual’s death was intentional. For a suicide to be recognized, examiners must be able to say that the deceased meant to die. Other factors that contribute to the difficulty are differences among states as to who is mandated to report a death, as well as changes over time in the coding of mortality data.[ii]

Importance of combat exposure in Veterans experience PTSD.

Though considerable research has examined the relation between combat or war trauma and suicide, the relationship is not entirely clear. Some studies have shown a relationship while others have not (1). There is strong evidence, though, that among Veterans who experienced combat trauma, the highest relative suicide risk is observed in those who were wounded multiple times and/or hospitalized for a wound (7). This suggests that the intensity of the combat trauma, and the number of times it occurred, may influence suicide risk in Veterans. This study assessed only combat trauma, not a diagnosis of PTSD, as a factor in the suicidal behaviour.



A body of research indicates that there is a correlation between many types of trauma and suicidal behaviours. For example, there is evidence that traumatic events such as childhood abuse may increase a person’s suicide risk.[iii]   A history of military sexual trauma (MST) also increases the risk for suicide and intentional self-harm, suggesting a need to screen for suicide risk in this population.[iv] There is no one cure for these problems.

The incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be related to a number of stressful situations, PTSD is regarded as a mental disorder that may occur in people who experience first-hand, or witness any form of intense violence, shock, or serious accident, or a life-threatening situation, which causes the fight and flight areas of the brain to be activated (the amygdala). PTSD often involves situations that will make people feel unworthy, hopeless, fearful, horrified, and overwhelmed when attempting to carry out the simplest of tasks or when they find themselves in a social situation and unable to relate to the people around them.

     Symptoms of PTSD include:

Reliving the traumatic event through thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares. Experiencing a rapid heart-beat and sweating while reliving  the traumatic event. Feeling numb. Feeling emotionally detached from other people. Sleep disturbances. Irritability. Avoidance of anything associated with the trauma. Anger. Difficulty concentrating. Amnesia. A strong response when shocked. Extreme vigilance, always feeling on guard. Difficulty working. Difficulty with social situations. Inability to properly care for loved ones. The onset of symptoms usually occurs within three months of the incident, but may not occur for several years. PTSD can affect people of any age, including children. About 7.5 percent of Americans will experience PTSD in their lifetime. About 5 million Americans will suffer from PTSD during any year. Women are twice as likely to experience PTSD as men. People with PTSD oftentimes also suffer from depression or other mental disorders. War veterans, law enforcement officers, firefighters, and EMT workers are particularly vulnerable to PTSD. Anyone with PTSD is at a high risk for suicide.


Possible causes for PTSD.  

Military combat, rape, domestic violence, assault, sexual molestation, sexual abuse, a kidnapping, child abuse, severe verbal abuse, torture, airplane accident, fire, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, animal attack, threatening individual with a gun, a knife or other weapon, stalking, constant pressure to achieve.


Many people repress their trauma and it would appear that the severity and length of time the trauma is experienced the more likely the details of the trauma will be repressed.  Finding one’s voice to speak the truth of experience, and the transformative potential of writing, art and meditation is  a significant aid to alleviating the problems of trauma, but it is not an easy road, it takes time and commitment.  We now know how trauma occurs and how the damage caused can be successfully managed and in some cases repaired when sufficient resources are available.   However, trauma is a societal problem and  alleviating the trauma in the first place seems like an impossible task so the next best thing  must be preparing people for the possible onset of trauma at any stage in their lifetime.   If this kind of preparation is going to happen it needs to start at an early age.

[i] Knox, K.L. (2008). Epidemiology of the relationship between traumatic experience and suicidal behaviors. PTSD Research Quarterly, 19(4). (PDF)

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Afifi, T.O., Enns, M.W., Cox, B.J., Asmundson, G.J.G., Stein, M.B., & Sareen, J. (2008). Population attributable fractions of psychiatric disorders and suicide ideation and attempts associated with adverse childhood experiences. American Journal of Public Health, 98, 946-952. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2007.120253

[iv] Kimerling, R., Gima, K., Smith, M. W., Street, A., & Frayne, S. (2007). The Veterans Health Administration and military sexual trauma. American Journal of Public Health, 97, 2160-2166. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2006.092999