January 14, 2022

January 10, 2022

The Long, Grim Arm of Residential Schools

Canada's residential schools are not in the past. While fairly recent, such facilities affect more than the students that experienced their abuse. Intergenerational trauma is a severe mental health issue that psychedelics may have potential for.

Written By

Bailey Forcier-Yake

Bailey Forcier-Yake is an Indigenous freelance writer from the Nisga'a Nation of Northern BC. Her favorite topics to write about are mental health, well-being, and spirituality. Her goal is to raise awareness about mental health issues and help eliminate the stigma that comes with it.

While psychedelics are a trending topic for various mental health conditions, another story has recently come to light: the real history of Canadian residential schools. Although not a secret to Canadians, media groups are now acknowledging the pain and horror that Indigenous children experienced, and which survivors of such schools carry with them into everyday life. Like a chain, such trauma becomes interwoven, affecting generations to come.

Intergenerational Trauma & Residential Schools

The trauma affecting FNMI communities in Canada is unique. The cruelty put on FNMI peoples was targeted as the intention of residential school was, as blatantly stated by Indian Affairs Minister Duncan Campbell Scott, to get rid of the “Indian Problem.” 

By condemning Indigenous peoples, demonizing cultures, and making residential school compulsory for Indigenous children, the Canadian government attempted to assimilate and erase Indigenous cultures from the country. It was an undivided act of genocide, both cultural and physical. 

Residential schools were mandated, not to educate (as most students did not pass grade 6 and were discouraged from pursuing even a grade 9 education), but to “Kill the Indian and save the man.” The implications of this message are both figurative in terms of erasing the cultures and customs through assimilation, as well as literal as many Indigenous children died in residential schools due to smallpox, tuberculosis, and abuse.

Despite their best efforts, the Canadian government and the Catholic Church failed in their mission. Now, Indigenous communities continue to fight for reconciliation. The trauma that residential school victims received lives on, inherited by generations. 

This is called intergenerational trauma.

What Happened in Canadian Residential Schools? 

At as young as three years old, FNMI children were taken from their families against their will, stripped of their culture, and utterly dehumanized. While attending residential schools, children endured extreme mental, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. 

The recent discovery of a mass unmarked child grave containing the remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, has sparked a change for more support. Since that initial finding, numerous gravesites have been uncovered across Canada in an effort to hold the Government accountable. Children were killed by beating, starving, molesting, and even Nazi-esque experiments. In fact, Adolf Hitler himself applauded and adopted the genocidal tactics and treatment of Indigenous peoples in North America during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

How Do Current Aid Systems for Residential School Survivors Work? 

Aid systems for residential school survivors and their affected families were much more scarce in the past. 

Since the public has been made more aware of the severity of what happened to those who attended residential schools, more resources have appeared. Support has become more available to those who suffer from the effect of residential schools. 

Is it enough, though?

The Canadian government started the "Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program," which provides mental health, emotional, and cultural support services to those who qualify. 

To qualify for the program, you must meet one of the following requirements:

  • Be a former residential school student.
  • Be the partner or spouse of a former student.
  • Be raised by a former student or in the household of one. 
  • Be in relation with a former student and be affected by the intergenerational trauma caused by the former students' attendance at residential school. 

Various support programs are available across the country that are run by small organizations and charities. 

Do These Aid Systems Help? 

Such programs can offer support. Still, there lacks a necessary variety of options, accessibility, and efficiency within certain programs, especially government run ones. Imagine needing help and having to undergo a long application process. Without diverse, funded programs available, history will repeat as trauma will continue throughout generations. 

Let’s break down that term.

What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is also called historical trauma, multigenerational trauma, secondary traumatization, and complex trauma.

Intergenerational trauma is a term psychologists use when trauma comes from one generation and gets passed onto the next. Research has indicated that the emotional wounds inflicted on survivors of traumatic events have serious consequences that carry onward for years after they happen. 

Trauma inflicted on a collective of people — in this case, FNMI people — has the ability to negatively affect the following generations. The psychological effects of trauma get passed down to the children and grandchildren of those initially traumatized. The aftermath is often seen through socioeconomic issues, such as poor living conditions or certain parental styles developed as a result of experiencing trauma. Suicide rates are much higher among FNMI people than any other population in Canada due to intergenerational trauma.

Where Does it Start?

International trauma starts when one first person (the parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent) experiences a traumatic event. The trauma is then transmitted to the next generation, their children.

Parental communication regarding the traumatic event and how the family functions afterward play an important role in how trauma gets passed on.

It's also important to note that although anyone can experience intergenerational trauma, its effects are much more profound on groups of people rather than individuals.

How Does it Work?

After the initial traumatic event occurs, the first survivor will develop symptoms similar to those with PTSD or Complex PTSD. 

The children of the first survivors (the second generation) are then raised by their parents, who are still struggling to deal with the trauma. 

Being brought up in a household with someone who has been traumatized could cause them to develop improper coping and parental skills of their own. These characteristics will continue affecting future generations unless the cycle gets broken and they receive the treatment they need to heal. 

What Do the Effects of Intergenerational Trauma Lead To?  

When a person or a group of people experience something extremely traumatic, they are susceptible to passing its effects onto their descendants. The effects are especially evident in the second and third generations. 

So, although a person may not directly experience the initial traumatic event, that person may still display the same type of behavioral and emotional reactions as if they did. 

The reactions displayed depends on the generation but typically include:

  • Feelings of guilt and shame 
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling helpless and vulnerable
  • Issues with confidence and low self-esteem
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Substance abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Other addictions (sex, gambling, etc.)
  • Hypervigilance
  • Dissociation
  • Difficulty forming healthy relationships and attachment to others
  • Problems controlling irritability and aggression
  • Extreme reactions to and difficulty managing stress

How Is Intergenerational Trauma Treated? 

There are a few different therapy models used to treat victims who have experienced trauma. 

Some of the most commonly used methods of cognitive therapy are:

How Can Treatment Improve? 

Everyone heals differently. What helps one person may not help the next. 

So far, most treatments for trauma-based mental health issues consist only of different cognitive therapy techniques and strategies. However, some victims of trauma may need more from those types of procedures in order to help access the roots of their suffering and rewire their brains. 

That's where the use of psychedelics may become a useful treatment option. 

Indigenous cultures across North America have used psychedelics and plant-based medicines for more than 5000 years. Psychoactive plants were and are used in rituals and as sacred medicines. While these same substances and practices were condemned and ridiculed as “savage” customs, they’re now being adopted for use in clinical research and even psychotherapy.

Today, psychedelics are a focus for research into the treatment of several mental health issues, including:

  • Depression
  • Addiction
  • Decreased sexual desire (especially in women)
  • Anxiety (especially related to end-of-related)
  • PTSD/Complex PTSD
  • Intergenerational trauma

How Can Psychedelics Help to Treat Mental Health Issues Caused by Trauma?

Psychedelics might play a role in disrupting intergenerational trauma by providing victims and survivors with an alternative treatment option. Mental health patients could be prescribed a psychedelic alongside psychotherapy to increase the chances of positive results and quicker, more direct healing. 

For example, MDMA has been studied to treat PTSD and may have similar effects on treating other deeply rooted mental health issues, such as Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). 

Another psychedelic that has been under study to treat trauma, as well as addiction, is the atypical psychedelic, ibogaine.

Research into psychedelics is the driving factor to discovering new and more personalized forms of healing. With the right focus, the public will be able to have access to more efficacious types of treatment with pharmaceutical grade psychedelics.

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