The Importance of Past Generations in Today’s Trauma Work

A recent study in JAMA Psychiatry, a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, concluded that the daughters of women exposed to childhood trauma are at increased risk for serious psychiatric disorders.

Researchers studied 46,877 Finnish children who were evacuated to Sweden during World War II between 1940 and 1944. They then tracked the health of their 93,391 male and female offspring born from 1950 to 2010.

They discovered that female children of evacuated mothers were twice as likely to be hospitalized for a psychiatric illness as their female cousins who had not been displaced, and more than four times as likely to have depression or bipolar disorder. It is thought that traumatic events may cause changes in gene expression that can then be inherited by female offspring. Interestingly, male children of evacuees appeared to be unaffected.

At Timberline Knolls, we have long known that a link exists between psychiatric illnesses and past generations.  This is why we do multi-generational fact finding with our residents utilizing a genogram, which is a pictorial display of a person’s family relationships and medical history.

A genogram resembles a family tree, except it is much more focused on relational status. It includes the immediate family of the resident, the family of origin, cousins and grandparents. Importantly, it indicates whether each relationship was positive, abusive, detached, or discontinued. Details such as occupation, marriages, divorces and adoptions are included as well as any addictions or disorders.

When such extensive information is committed to paper, it allows the therapist, resident and her family to sit back and look at it in its entirety, then make connections that were not previously apparent.

This information often proves revelatory regarding the genesis of the woman or adolescent’s disorder or addiction, leading to greater insight on the part of the resident.

To understand a resident, we must understand the family. Taking an extensive look at previous generations helps make sense of the present; from there, the resident can independently decide what she wants the future to look like, fully recognizing that cycles can be broken with the right skills.