A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry is shedding light on intergenerational trauma, adding to the growing body of evidence that the impact of trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next.
While the research stems from Scandinavia more than 75 years ago, it has critically important implications for Philadelphia, a city challenged by high rates of deep poverty and violence, contributing to trauma exposure among its residents.
During World War II, tens of thousands of children were evacuated from Finland to live with Swedish foster families. This study found that girls who were evacuated exhibited higher rates of mental illness and psychiatric hospitalizations over time.
What might seem surprising, however, is that the daughters of those who experienced the trauma were four times more likely to have been hospitalized with mental illness than those whose mothers stayed with their families in Finland. Sons of evacuees and daughters of male evacuees didn’t have similarly high rates of mental illness.
While scientists have documented the perpetuation of trauma through generations in a number of populations, including those who lived through the Holocaust, Cambodian genocide, and bombing of Hiroshima, this latest study provides new information about the increased vulnerability to intergenerational trauma among females.
As a clinician who works primarily with children being raised by single mothers, the finding that the traumatic exposures of previous generations are likely affecting the physical and emotional health of mothers and children is disheartening. If mothers bear the molecular scars of trauma on their DNA, and I can’t undo that history, will carefully planned interventions have any degree of positive impact?
This has particular resonance in Philadelphia, where 25 percent of residents live below the poverty line. A 2013 study found that 40 percent of Philadelphia residents — three times higher than a national sample — report experiencing high doses of adverse childhood experiences, which include abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, or growing up with a mentally ill parent.
Combined with the latest study results, it’s a grim tale — our city’s most vulnerable residents have inherited a lineage of trauma and destitution that may reach back generations.
The cost of this, in the health and welfare of our society but also in dollars, is enormous.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the cost of child maltreatment in the United States to be $124 billion annually, including incarceration, child welfare costs, unemployment and drop-out rates, as well as medical costs associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiac disease, and some cancers.
At the same time, research also shows that positive environments can correct behavioral alterations that may be inherited.
So what can we do?
First, we must press our elected officials to fund programs that focus on prevention and early intervention and ensure safe, stable, and healthy homes, schools, and communities for our children.
And in our current political climate, where support for such programs is at risk, each of us has an opportunity to drive change by participating in efforts to strengthen economic support for Philadelphia families. Initiate or join efforts that improve employability of residents. Champion programs that teach, promote, and provide support for positive parenting practices.
Many of us who work in human services recognize this to be a critical time. Systems are strained, resources are scarce, and the needs of those we serve are tremendous. Many are worried about the impact of government decisions on our most vulnerable citizens. But hopelessness and apathy are unacceptable. We must resolve to do a better job in 2018 of supporting our city’s children and families and help end the devastating intergenerational cycles of poverty and trauma.
Jeanne Felter is director of the master’s program in community and trauma counseling at Thomas Jefferson University. Felterj@philau.edu