Returning from Rwanda made me ponder the effects of conflict.
It has been 24 years since the genocide was carried out by Hutus against the Tutsi people. Mass graves throughout the country were discovered as deep down as 25 metres, mostly underneath homes of the perpetrators. Many are imprisoned for their part in the genocide or accessory to it, but there is a barrier of unspoken grief in the air like the motorbike taxis seen at every corner of the city.
The fallout from atrocities like Rwanda’s genocide is immeasurable, because elucidating the impact of societal regression is difficult for many reasons. The implications for such a life changing event can leave behind the attribution of mental disorders, passed to younger generations, known as transgenerational trauma (TGT).
Although consensus within the scientific community is split, there is a lack of consideration for how TGT and observable behaviours contribute to mental health. We can see its influences across phenomena including poverty, violence and extremist viewpoints – the vicious circles many speak of.
Perhaps we need look no further than Northern Ireland, whereby politics still divide, and the negative effects of the troubles are clear. Over 4,400 suicides were registered in Northern Ireland between 1998 (the year of the Good Friday agreement) and 2016, which some academics think is an example of TGT. Speaking to people in Northern Ireland, to me it seems clear that internalised grief and trauma have been passed on to family and community members. A country where the peace walls remain.
Even if one still denies the existence of genetically heritable trauma, it exists in the make-up of shared experiences between family members or intergenerational trauma. Upon my return working in Ukraine, I took my daughter to Cliveden Manor, a safe and hospitable place. When she walked onto the grass, I quickly tugged on her jacket exclaiming “No!”, caused by my experience with landmine fields throughout the east and other countries. For the rest of the day, she walked on the path and it had sunk in how easily any negative experience can be transmitted. Now imagine the impact of a type of trauma experienced over several years.
Transgenerational trauma is a very real problem. Following acts of war, such trauma can stifle national progression and limit the possibilities of those who suffer from what their parents endured – or close to it.
In Britain, we arguably suffer similar complexes. When I spot a Brexit article posted to Facebook, I scroll the comments, and most certainly World War I and II influence a number of opinions. “They tried to rule us twice, and they succeeded another way”, one user writes. I hear chants at protests and sports events of a similar nature. In many ways, World War II seems to have influenced and shaped sentiment on the referendum even though the UK was not a member until 1973.
While trauma, especially intergenerational trauma (and heritable) can manifest as mental health problems, negative behavioural traits can influence behaviour long after major events; evident throughout history, apparent today.
There is much talk of the genetic inheritance of trauma, despite there being more than one type of transferrable trauma; most notably as behaviours transferred from parent to child.
Not long ago I spoke with Martin Barber OBE, former Director of the United Nations Mine Action Service, who relayed to me a story from his time in Afghanistan, about men who horrifyingly beat their wives. In conversation with them, he asked why they do this. They disclosed that they witnessed their father’s doing it, to which they broke down in tears realising the root of their actions.
There are examples of abuses happening every second of every day that alter the mental health of a person. A child who grows up to fear the clenched fist of a parent may perpetuate their parent’s actions in subsequent generations. And the strangest thing about transgenerational trauma is that it is so common, we often disregard it as something we cannot control.
The language of key figures in the Leave camp’s campaign was dangerously irresponsible. They counted on a lack of understanding of the European Union matrix and their protocol and language undoubtedly took control of the nation’s misfortunes in a time of austerity. Furthermore, the role of psychological impacts from World War II are obvious from the front pages and in the speeches made in the European Parliament.
Tackling transgenerational trauma, whichever form you believe in, might be key to improving the lives of many communities. Let us begin to think of it as the complex mechanism it is – observable, genetic, and above all, dangerously influential.