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Historical trauma (HT) is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences. The historical trauma response (HTR) is a constellation of features in reaction to this trauma.

The HTR may include substance abuse as a vehicle for attempting to numb the pain associated with trauma. The HTR often includes other types of self-destructive behavior, suicidal thoughts and gestures, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, and difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions. Associated with HTR is historical unresolved grief that accompanies the trauma.[1]

Historical trauma is an example of intergenerational trauma, which is the general idea that a trauma an individual experiences in an earlier generation can have effects that reach into the lives of future generations. For example, a pattern of maternal abandonment of a child at a young age might be seen across three generations.[2] Significant original research on the mechanisms of transmission of intergenerational violent trauma has been done by Daniel Schechter. His work builds on pioneers in this field such as: Judith Kestenberg, Dori Laub, Selma Fraiberg, Alicia Lieberman, Susan Coates, Charles Zeanah, Karlen Lyons-Ruth, Yael Danieli, Rachel Yehuda and others. Schechter's work has included the study of experimental interventions that may lead to changes of trauma-associated mental representations that can help intergenerational cycles of violence.[3][4]

Historical trauma and social work

There is a pressing need for mental health and other social service workers to become educated about trauma-related problems. Horrible events damage people, families and communities. Trauma creates distance, distrust and disconnection between people. Healing is about reconnection, reconstruction and finding meaning. Healing must repair connections with others, self image, values and beliefs. Healing comes in many forms. Individual counseling or therapy, spiritual help, and group or whole community gatherings are all important aspects of the healing process. With the right kinds of help, most people can become more psychologically and emotionally healthy. In a very real sense, all traditional healing approaches are forms of trauma treatment. They incorporate the very elements that are most important in helping people recover from traumatic experiences: a renewal of hope, positive self image and spiritual beliefs, renewal of family connections, and reaffirming one's place in the human community.[5]

Issues such as historical trauma, citizenship, sovereignty, and cultural identity have implications for the provision of culturally competent human services to people.[6] It is not possible for social workers to know all aspects of all cultures, but it is important for them to understand that diversity exists and to have a general sense of history, culture, and contemporary realities of clients.[7]

The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well­being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession's focus on individual well­being in a social context and the well­being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living. Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients. "Clients" is used inclusively to refer to individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice. These activities may be in the form of direct practice, community organizing, supervision, consultation administration, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation. Social workers seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs. Social workers also seek to promote the responsiveness of organizations, communities, and other social institutions to individuals' needs and social problems.[8]

See also



  1. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart "The historical trauma response among natives and its relationship to substance abuse: A Lakota illustration." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 35(1)
  2. Abrams, M. S. (1999). Intergenerational transmission of trauma: Recent contributions from the literature of family systems approaches to treatment. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 53(2), 225-231.
  3. Schechter DS, Myers MM, Brunelli SA, Coates SW, Zeanah CH, Davies M, Grienenberger JF, Marshall RD, McCaw JE, Trabka KA, Liebowitz MR (2006). Traumatized mothers can change their minds about their toddlers: Understanding how a novel use of videofeedback supports positive change of maternal attributions. Infant Mental Health Journal, 27(5), 429-448
  4. Schechter DS (2004). Intergenerational communication of violent traumatic experience within and by the dyad: The case of a mother and her toddler. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 3(2), 203-232.
  5. Swinomish Tribal Mental Health Project. (2002). A Gathering of Wisdoms: Tribal Mental: A cultural Perspective. (2 Ed) Intergeneration Trauma in the Tribal Community (pp. 77-114). LaConner, WA: Swinomish Tribal Mental Health.
  6. Weaver, H.N. (1998). Indigenous People in a Multicultural Society: Unique Issues for Human Services. Social Work 43(3), 203-211.
  7. Weaver, H.N. (1999). Indigenous People and the Social Work Profession: Defining Culturally Competent Services. Social Work 44(3). 217-225.
  8. National Association of Social Workers (2009). Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved October 26, 2009 from NASW website:

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