What is intergenerational trauma and why is Jacinta Price being criticised?

Key Points
  • Jacinta Price said she does not believe Indigenous Australians continue to be negatively impacted by colonisation.
  • The No campaigner also likened the experiences of Indigenous people to British and Irish convicts.
  • Experts and political opponents described her comments as “completely offensive” and “out of step” with evidence.
Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the , has been criticised for controversial views on colonisation and trauma experienced by Indigenous Australians.
In an address to the National Press Club on Thursday, Price said she did not believe Indigenous Australians continued to be negatively impacted by colonisation.
Price also refuted the suggestion that colonisation had led to generations of trauma and suggested families of convicts faced similar struggles.

Experts and political opponents have denied her claims, citing historical and scientific evidence of the impacts of colonisation and intergenerational trauma on Indigenous Australians.

How were British and Irish convicts treated in Australia?

Between 1788 and 1868 more than 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia as punishment for crimes committed in Britain and Ireland.
They were sent to Australia to work seven days a week as punishment for their crimes, but it was also an opportunity for redemption.
The convicts lived under strict rules and faced heavy punishments if they broke regulations, and good behaviour could lead to pardons and early release.
Once free, they could own their own land (some were given land), and could be appointed to key positions in the colonial government.

Price, who has Warlpiri and Celtic heritage, was questioned about whether colonisation had led to generations of trauma for Indigenous Australians.

She said if that were true, convicts’ families would also be traumatised.
“That would mean those of us whose ancestors were dispossessed of their own country and brought here in chains as convicts are also suffering from intergenerational trauma,” she said.

“So I should be doubly suffering from intergenerational trauma.”

How did colonisation impact Indigenous Australians?

According to colonisation has had a “devastating” impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and culture.
The AIHW report said violence, disease and settlers occupying land had caused loss of life and disrupted Indigenous Australians from being able to support themselves.

The forcible removal of children had also contributed to intergenerational trauma, the report said, with the factors having a “fundamental” impact on disadvantage and physical and mental health.

Indigenous Australians were not given the right to vote until 1962.
According to the AIHW, cultural identity and participation, along with access to traditional lands and family, positively influence overall health and wellbeing.
On Wednesday, Price was asked whether she believed the history of colonisation impacted modern Indigenous Australians.
“No. I will be honest with you. No, I do not think so,” she said.

“There is no ongoing negative impacts of colonisation … A positive impact? Absolutely. I mean, now we’ve got running water, we’ve got readily available food.

“If we keep telling Aboriginal people that they are victims, we are effectively removing their agency and then giving them the expectation that someone else is responsible for their lives.”
Dr Tracy Westerman, managing director of Indigenous Psychological Services and founding director of the Perth-based Westerman Jilya Institute for Indigenous Mental Health, said the comments were disappointing and “completely out of step” with the evidence.
“The detrimental impacts of colonialism through increased risk for trauma; suicidal behaviours, depression and a myriad of mental health responses has been irrefutable for decades,” she said.

“When people have experienced massacres, segregation, forced removal which are historically documented and been witness to this type of violence and abuse, the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder becomes hard to calculate because it involves multiple trauma risk factors, which in isolation can result in a fourfold likelihood of post-trauma compared to the general population.”

Westerman said the key elements that enabled colonisation were “cultural superiority” and the destruction of Aboriginal cultural practices; the impacts of which continue today.
Racism and discrimination account for around 70 per cent of trauma symptoms and 30 per cent of depression, she said.
“Not all trauma is equal and what this means is that there are very unique trauma variables that exist for Aboriginal people that increase the likelihood of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” she said.

“This is critical for us to understand as psychologists, because that then enables us to address those unique factors as part of more informed culturally specific treatments and ensure that these trauma responses do not get passed into future generations.”

What is intergenerational trauma?

Intergenerational trauma happens when the effects of a traumatic event or issue are passed down through generations via genes, biology and then through environments that exist as threatening to oneself, such as racism.

Westerman said the forcible removal of children was a particularly traumatic aspect of colonisation, which continued for decades.

She said the length of time trauma goes on for, the greater the likelihood of trauma being passed into future generations, because trauma behaviours become normalised as a reaction to threat.
“Attachment theory has told us for many decades that it is almost impossible to recover from forced removal from primary attachment figures,” she said.
“This compromised attachment has strong links with violence; alcohol and substance misuse into future generations.

“So, treat the trauma; deal with many of the complex issues we are grappling with in our communities every day.”

Westerman said Price’s comments were “extremely damaging”, and denying trauma represents those who have PTSD as being somehow “to blame” for it.
“Many with trauma suffer in silence; as do their families. This type of commentary does not help those to seek treatment and support,” she said.
“Many people who experience trauma tend to internalise; they feel overwhelming victim shame; so will not seek help; they tend to manifest behaviour such as anger, alcohol abuse without insight into the fact that these behaviours are trauma based.

“When people deny that traumatic events were traumatic, this is invalidating to victims and leads to more engrained trauma responses.”

Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney told NITV Price’s comments were “completely offensive”.
“A statement like that denies what has been recognised academically, scientifically, medically,” she said.
Burney said Price’s comments denied the experience of many First Nations families.
“We only have to look at the stolen generations and the impacts that that has had down the generations,” she said.
“There are people from the stolen generations that are still alive that can tell you about what it means, and I think it is a betrayal to those people.”
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