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.
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