Historical Trauma

What Is It?

Historical trauma is most easily described as multigenerational trauma experienced by a specific cultural group. Historical trauma can be experienced by anyone living in families at one time marked by severe levels of trauma, poverty, dislocation, war, etc., and who are still suffering as a result.

Historical trauma is cumulative and collective. The impact of this type of trauma manifests itself, emotionally and psychologically, in members of different cultural groups.

Why is Historical Trauma Relevant?

As a collective phenomenon, those who never even experienced the traumatic stressor, such as children and descendants, can still exhibit signs and symptoms of trauma.

Manifestations of Historical Trauma

Internalized Oppression

As the result of historical trauma, traumatized people may begin to internalize the views of the oppressor and perpetuate a cycle of self-hatred that manifests itself in negative behaviors. Emotions such as anger, hatred, and aggression are self-inflicted, as well as inflicted on members of one’s own group.

Who is Impacted by Historical Trauma?

  • People of Color (African-Americans/Blacks)
  • American Indians/First Nations Peoples
  • Immigrants
  • Families Living in Poverty

African-Americans/Blacks: This population has been exposed to generations of discrimination, racism, race-based segregation and resulting poverty. Members of this population may have been exposed to micro-aggressions, which are defined as “events involving discrimination, racism, and daily hassles that are targeted at individuals from diverse racial and ethnic groups.”

Example of Stressors: slavery; colonialism/imperialism

Current Manifestations: Mistrust of police; lack of self-worth, self-hatred among Blacks/African Americans who act out their aggression on people who look like them.

Fear of Utilizing Medical and Psychological Services

There is a significant history of atrocities against African-Americans that contribute to suspicion and paranoia regarding seeking physical and mental health services.

Other Fear Factors

  • Slave labor
  • Forced migrations
  • Stolen property
  • Dehumanization
  • Mass incarceration
  • Torture
  • Medical experimentation
  • Discrimination
  • Race riots
  • Police Brutality
  • Racial Profiling
  • Lynchings
  • Mass murder
  • Long-lasting psychological effects (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) on survivors and descendants.

American Indians/First Nations Peoples: This population has been exposed to generations of violent colonization, assimilation policies, and general loss.

Example of Stressors: The Americanization of Indian Boarding Schools and the forced assimilation among their students.

Current Manifestations: High rates of suicide, homicide, domestic violence, child abuse, alcoholism and other social problems.

Immigrants: Forced migration may be the result of conflict, natural disaster, famine, development projects and policies, or nuclear and chemical disasters. These various populations may have been exposed to discrimination, racism, forced assimilation/acculturation, colonization, and genocide.

Impoverished Communities: Poverty can lead to family stress, child abuse and neglect, substance abuse, mental health challenges and domestic violence.

Poor individuals and families are not evenly distributed across communities or throughout the country. Instead, they tend to live near one another, clustering in certain neighborhoods and regions. This concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.

Poverty in these communities is frequently intergenerational. The lack of access to services, increased exposure to violence, and higher risk of victimization that exist in these communities often results in a much greater potential for experiencing trauma and re-traumatization among residents than in communities that are not areas of concentrated poverty.

Example of Stressors: Hunger, poor or inadequate housing, lack of access to health care, community crime

Current Manifestations: Domestic violence; child abuse; substance abuse