Updated: Jun 20
by Joshua Paasewe
Colonisation and the associated physical, cultural, and socio-economic violence—such as child removals and loss of identity or culture—have left distinct impacts on the lives of First Nations Australians in the form of trauma. This trauma has been passed down from one generation to the next. The consequences of immediate trauma can devastate, and when accumulated across generations, generate deep emotional and social harms. The notion of intergenerational trauma itself may be new to many, so—to help foster greater community understanding—I interviewed two individuals working with this sector of Australia’s population. My first interviewee was Jarrod Wicks, a Mental Health Worker who himself is an Aboriginal man, providing valuable lived experience knowledge from both a professional and personal lens. My second interviewee was Pramila Jabez, a Senior Social Worker at Budyari (Miller) Community Health Centre. She has been working with the First Nations population for approximately 10 years and could provide a lot of insight into how transgenerational trauma affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Everyone experiences trauma in some form or another, but for vulnerable sections of society who have been historically subjugated, it becomes particularly pronounced. I wanted to ounderstand how the trauma experienced by First Nations individuals differs from other marginalised groups. Jarrod explained the impacts of initial colonial trauma were still being felt even today; there are significant barriers that make it difficult for First Nations to escape the effects of trauma, both immediate and intergenerational. “For instance, the chances of a First Nations child being removed from his family are still significantly high as compared to other groups in Australia,” Jarrod states, “the reasons for removals are usually for things, like parenting issues, being unable to educate their children, or being unclothed.” However, these cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Looking at why this occurs requires us to examine the broader settler-colonial practices of Australian history that have historically removed opportunities that would empower these parents. Pramila’s response continued where Jarrod left off, “migrants who arrive in Australia with experiences of trauma in their home countries come here for healing and for a better life. However, this is not the case for First Nations people. This is their land. There is nowhere to escape to in order to find a new beginning where they can heal. In other words, healing must happen here.”
So how is transgenerational trauma passed down? Pramila shared that children learn from their parent’s behaviour, mindset, views, and the things they talk about. But they also learn from what they experience when they go out into the world. In other words, children are born into an environment where there is a lack of opportunities, of education, of professional development, of personal growth, and more. When these children go to school and out into the world, society teaches them they are different, and confirms they are living a reality of social and economic disadvantage. She further stated there may be hidden bias (whether intentional or not) at play in how others may react and treat First Nations children, only cementing this notion of difference and isolating the kids. This then continues down through generations.
Since trauma is still created by the ongoing process of settler-colonialism in Australia, what sort of effects does this have on First Nations individuals? Pramila responded, “it can manifest as low self-esteem, lack of confidence, welfare dependency, and a lack of motivation as they may not be provided the opportunities or resources needed to empower their life trajectory. Transgenerational trauma can have serious mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual repercussions on their health and wellbeing”. Jarrod also recognised the impact on self-worth, mental health, lifestyle, and wage, but added the recurring theme of loss of identity, which in his experience has been one of the biggest impacts and is likewise correlated with poor mental health outcomes.
So, what can we do to address transgenerational trauma? Perhaps you may ask yourself how new and future generations may still suffer from the impacts of past trauma when they did not experience it themselves? According to Pramila, they cannot ‘simply get over it’ since it is still in the air: “All members of society need to collaborate to eradicate the impacts of transgenerational trauma. It will require all spheres of society working together to put an end to the cycle of trauma to ensure that future generations are preserved from this devastating phenomenon. Essentially, addressing transgenerational trauma will involve acknowledging and addressing it holistically. Just saying transgenerational trauma does not exist, when in reality it is very much real, will not make it go away.” Acknowledgement is important because it validates First Nations’ experiences of transgenerational trauma and allows us to put strategies in place that listen to and respond to the diverse needs of Australia’s original inhabitants.
Jarrod listened intently, adding that “Transgenerational trauma is everyone’s business. Communication and dialogue are important, as everyone should engage with the topic. Services must be available to address the impacts and causes of this trauma, and those services must be monitored and evaluated to make sure that there is actual support of First Nations people within those services. First Nations individuals should be at the forefront of such services, as they are better able to engage with Aboriginal clients.” As an Aboriginal man and Mental Health Worker, he has experience being on the front line. Jarrod recounted how his grandfather experienced trauma as part of the Stolen Generations and passed on this trauma to his mother, who then passed it on to him. Having the ability to share his own experience of going through transgenerational trauma has strengthened his ability and knowledge to support those he works with. This sharing is important, as some First Nations people may not even be aware they have been affected. They might not understand why they have been parented in a certain way growing up, and that they are now parenting their children in much the same way. Jarrod continued, “another possibility is that they may not understand how transgenerational trauma may impact their mental health. For example, an adult suffering from depression or social anxiety, which I have recognised as a common manifestation of transgenerational trauma, may not completely understand the impact it is having on them and their children, or how they may pass it on to future generations.”
What can non-First Nations people do to address transgenerational trauma? Pramila believes everyone should think about what they can do in their own small way. In her view, anyone who comes to Australia should know the history of Aboriginal people, they should acknowledge the past and the relevance of transgenerational trauma today, and that they should support Aboriginal people in this struggle to be liberated from the impact of transgenerational trauma. For Pramila, acknowledgement, respect, and building a sense of togetherness in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is key. Likewise, Jarrod said that non-First Nations people should be aware, open, and supportive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Everyone should be treated equitably. Jarrod shared that he constantly has to tell other clinicians that if they want to engage with First Nations people, they should treat them as they would anyone else. This involves talking to them as you would to your own family member or a close friend. It is also about being aware of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s culture, beliefs, and understanding of the different nations within Australia.
Robin DiAngelo—an American author of several books on racism and race relations—conceives of racism as a system rather than individual prejudice or bias (City of Oakland, 2020). Thus, in her view, systemic racism is the collective racial prejudice backed by legal authority and institutional control (City of Oakland, 2020). This conceptualisation is important as it shifts the focus from blame and compels us to examine how racism is embedded systemically and how it affects individuals and communities. This system has historically excluded and disadvantaged First Nations Australians. Transgenerational trauma is the result, and it currently continues across various disparities, ranging from health issues to police tensions and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.
To address transgenerational trauma, we must recognise we live in a racist system, first and foremost. A Western view of the world dominates this system. Therefore, part of addressing transgenerational trauma also involves privileging First Nations ways of doing and knowing alongside Western conceptualisations and practices (Lowitja Institute, 2022). As part of privileging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of understanding, we must create mechanisms and processes which will promote their empowerment. The ‘Closing the Gap’ initiative is a step in the right direction. However, Aboriginal people must be the chief decision makers on matters concerning them, rather than being involved in the decision-making process in a tokenistic manner. It is also perfectly acceptable if their decisions or viewpoints do not neatly align with dominant notions, because they are entitled to the liberty that comes with self-determination.
Empowerment is key, because only Aboriginal people know what they need to heal themselves, and healing comes from within. That is why we must foster an environment in which this healing can occur. According to the Lowitja Institute, constitutional recognition of the distinct cultures and identities of First Nations Australians is essential for equal development of wellbeing and health. Likewise, in its Close the Gap Campaign Report 2022, the importance of self-determination as a mechanism of change was likewise highlighted. Labelling Theory tells us that overtime a stigmatised individual will end up assuming the role that his stigmatisers give him (Scheff, 2010). Therefore, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be empowered to forge their identity on their own terms without the stigmatisation of Indigeneity that comes with living in a racist system. Perhaps, most importantly, healing transgenerational trauma involves recognising the humanity of First Nations people.
City of Oakland. (2020). White Fragility Lecture with Dr. Robin DiAngelo [Video].
Lowitja Institute. (2022). Why constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Lowitja Institute. (2022). Close The Gap Campaign Report 2022. Close the Gap Steering Committee. https://www.lowitja.org.au/content/Document/Lowitja-Publishing/ClosetheGapReport_2022.pdf
Scheff, T. (2010). Updating Labelling Theory: Normalising but not Enabling. Nordic Journal
of Social Research, 1.