The journal suggests that the symptomology of residential school syndrome is similar to that of PTSD. For most people who attended Indian residential schools, there is no symptomology other than that similar to other people who have attended a boarding school for an extended period of time. However, for a significant minority of Indian residential school students, there is symptomology quite similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. More specifically, there are recurrent intrusive memories, nightmares, occasional flashbacks, and quite striking avoidance of anything that might be reminiscent of the Indian residential school experience.
At the same time, there is often a significant detachment from others, and relationship difficulties are common. There is often diminished interest and participation in aboriginal cultural activities and markedly deficient knowledge of traditional culture and skills. Often there is markedly increased arousal including sleep difficulties, anger management difficulties, and impaired concentration. As might be the case for anyone attending a boarding school with inadequate parenting, parenting skills are often deficient. Strikingly, there is a persistent tendency to abuse alcohol or sedative medication drugs, often starting at a very young age.
From a biological point of view, PTSD occurs when the dysregulation induced by that trauma becomes a body’s default state. Provoke a person with PTSD, and her heart pounds faster, her startle reflex is exaggerated, she sweats, her mind races. The amygdala, which detects threats and releases the emotions associated with memories, whirs in overdrive. Meanwhile, hormones and neurotransmitters don’t always flow as they should, leaving the immune system underregulated. The result can be the kind of over-inflammation associated with chronic disease, including arthritis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Moreover, agitated nervous systems release adrenaline and catecholamines, both involved in the fight or flight response, unleashing a cascade of events that reinforces the effects of traumatic memories on the brain. This may partially explain the intrusive memories and flashbacks that plague people with PTSD. Extreme stress and PTSD also appear to shorten telomeres—the DNA caps at the end of a chromosome that govern the pace of aging.
The research emerging from neuropsychologists is that PTSD might be embedded genetically. As Shulevitz writes, people who have been subject to repeated, centuries-long violence, such as African Americans and Native Americans, may by now have disadvantage baked into their very molecules. The sociologist Robert Merton spoke of the “Matthew Effect,” named after verse 25:29 of the Book of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given ... but from him that hath not shall be taken.” Billie Holiday put it even better: “Them that’s got shall have; them that’s not shall lose.”
Rachel Yehuda, a Jewish psychologist, studied the impact of PTSD on children of parents who had been interned in concentration camps during the Holocaust. She, discovered that the children of PTSD-stricken mothers were diagnosed with PTSD three times as often as members of control groups; children of fathers or mothers with PTSD suffered three to four times as much depression and anxiety, and engaged more in substance abuse. She would go on to discover that children of mothers of survivors had less cortisol than control subjects and that the same was true of infants whose mothers had been pregnant and near the Twin Towers on 9/11.
In terms of residential schools, in the early ’80s, a Lakota professor of social work named Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart coined the phrase “historical trauma.” What she meant was “the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations.” Another phrase she used was “soul wound.” The wounding of the Native American soul, of course, went on for more than 500 years by way of massacres, land theft, displacement, enslavement, then--well into the twentieth century--the removal of Native American children from their families to what were known as Indian residential schools. These were grim, Dickensian places where some children died in tuberculosis epidemics and others were shackled to beds, beaten, and raped...
In a now classic 1946 study of Lakota children from Pine Ridge, the anthropologist Gordon Macgregor identified some predominant features of their personalities: numbness, sadness, inhibition, anxiety, hypervigilance, a not-unreasonable sense that the outside world was implacably hostile. They ruminated on death and dead relatives...
American Indians suffer shockingly worse health than other Americans. Native Americans and native Alaskans die in greater proportions than other racial or ethnic groups in the country, from homicide, suicide, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Public health officials point to a slew of socioeconomic factors to explain these disparities: poverty, unemployment, lack of health insurance, cultural barriers, discrimination, living far from decent grocery stores. Sociologists cite the disintegration of families, the culture of poverty, perpetual conflict with mainstream culture, and, of course, alcoholism. The research on multigenerational trauma, however, offers a new set of possible causes.
The impact of this is that children of historical trauma are more likely to have a collision with another traumatic event. In the past few years, Yehuda has helped design and has co-authored studies with Cindy Ehlers, a neuroscientist at La Jolla’s Scripps Research Institute, along with others, who advanced the high-risk hypothesis for Native Americans. A host of studies have shown that significantly more American Indians endure at least one traumatic incident—assault, an accident, a rape—than other Americans (among the subjects in this particular study, the rate was 94 percent); that the risk of being assaulted and contracting PTSD seem heritable to about the same degree (30 to 50 percent); and that trauma, substance abuse, and PTSD mostly seem to happen in early adulthood. “What is being inherited in these studies is not known,” writes Ehlers. But the fact that all these bad things emerge at the same point in the kids’ development argues for some degree of genetic or epigenetic influence. Another way of saying it is that maybe these young adults are finding themselves at the center of a particularly cruel collision of genes and history.
Part of the solution that the Jewish community uses to address these issues is "commemoration"An old joke has it that all Jewish holidays amount to the same thing: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!” When Jews retell the tales of Egyptian slavery—hunger, humiliation, murder—they’re performing acts of catharsis in the company of others whose forebears also outlasted their tormentors. The Cambodians suggest looking forward. During my time in Lowell, I visited a wat, a Buddhist temple, and met a monk who explained, through a translator, that he advises people who come to him for help to accept what cannot be changed, focus on the future, and trust that all injustices will come out right in the end.
In a counterintuitive way from the way most collective remembrances and even therapeutic interventions work, Hinton argues that treatments should focus as much, if not more, on techniques for calming oneself down than on awakening demons and that these should be rooted in the patient’s own traditions. For his clients, he uses meditation, mindfulness, stretching, the visualization of images that promote self-forgiveness and loving-kindness. For instance, Buddhism prizes a quality called upekkha (the word comes from Pali, an ancient Indian language): equanimity. This entails distancing oneself from emotions and disturbing thoughts; a Buddhist metaphor is to think of them as clouds in the sky, and let them scud away, and so that is something practitioners of culturally adapted CBT might have people do. “We have Southeast Asian patients imagine love spreading outward in all directions like water,” writes Hinton. “This is because in Buddhism water and coolness are associated with values of love, kindness, nurturing, and ‘merit-making,’” that is, doing good deeds such as giving to the poor or to the temple.
Yehuda found that in commemoration and remembrance, tone also matters. As Shulevitz writes: so it is important to remember. But tone also matters. What made Yehuda the saddest while cataloguing the stories of survivors’ children, she told me, were the descriptions of childhood homes that felt like graveyards and the children’s sense that laughter desecrated the memory of the dead. Death, she says, must not quash life: “Living and laughing and being joyous and almost disrespectful to those who suffered—it’s what they’d want you to do, without forgetting them,” she says.
Finally, none of this tells us specifically what to do for the next generation. Perhaps one of the most popular approaches emerges from social work and public health: It is to help mothers with PTSD deal with their infants so that they don’t reproduce their angst in their young children.