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Breaking the cycle: Intergenerational trauma and mental health

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By Kris Leonhardt


As generational cycles occur, negative patterns and traits are known to transfer through multiple generations via learned behavior, family dynamics and environment.

We continue to explore five northeast Wisconsin intergenerational family issues — physical health, alcoholism and drug use, mental health, education and housing — and what some organizations are doing to address the trends.

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – Intergenerational trauma is an emotional response to a deeply disturbing event that is passed down through generations and is often at the heart of family mental health issues.

While interpersonal trauma — abuse — can be a visible factor for mental health disorders, non-interpersonal emotional or psychological trauma can appear silent or hidden, delivered through biological, social and psychological factors across generations.

This can result in distant parent-child relationships, complicated personality traits or personality disorders and negative repeated patterns of behavior.

The Duke University Office for Institutional Equity provides the following example of this type of transmission:

“Intergenerational trauma is a concept developed to help explain years of generational challenges within families. It is the transmission (or sending down to younger generations) of the oppressive or traumatic effects of a historical event. For example, a great-grandmother who was placed in a concentration camp in Germany may have learned to cope by ‘cutting off’ her emotions. Because of this, this grandmother may interact with her family in an emotionally distant fashion. That relationship may be tumultuous, to say the least.

“The transmission of the historical trauma may begin to negatively affect her grandchildren and her grandchildren’s children, etc., leading to generations of emotional distance, defensive behaviors around expression of emotions, and denial.”

A report from the National Library of Medicine “Intergeneration trauma: A silent contributor to mental health deterioration in Afghanistan” provides another example:

“The triggering traumas can be personal, such as intimate partner violence, or collective, as in war or genocide. Intergenerational trauma is passed down in complex and subtle ways through attachment relationships and within family and community groups. One study discovered that successors of Holocaust survivors had shown changes in stress hormonal changes, indicating a change in their genetic makeup, implying that stressful experiences experienced by parents and grandparents can affect children even before they are born. Even after the threat has passed and they have resettled in a safe country, the body does not return to an un‐stressed state, and this response causes physical and psychological problems for future generations.”

Family dynamics can be key to the child’s development and the transmission of that trauma, as studies show positive childhood experiences, PCEs, and a healthy family environment can reduce the effect of adverse family experiences, or ACEs, such as intergenerational trauma.

The state of mental health

Early this year, Gov. Tony Evers declared mental health a “burgeoning crisis” affecting both students and families.

“We cannot overstate the profound impact that the past few years have had on our kids in many ways — and that includes their mental health. According to the Office of Children’s Mental Health’s 2022 Report, about a third of our kids experience feelings of sadness and hopelessness nearly every day — a 10% increase over the last decade,” Evers said.

“Kids in crisis are often distracted and disengaged in class, might not be able to finish their homework and won’t be able to focus on their studies at home or at school. Improving student mental health can also improve student learning outcomes and school attendance, while reducing bullying, risky behaviors, violence, involvement in juvenile justice system and substance misuse.”

The Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health (OCMH) 2002 report state that “school belonging is on the decline in Wisconsin. High school students are feeling less connected now than a decade ago. 40% of high school students in Wisconsin feel they do not belong at school.”

The report also found that screen time increased greatly during this same timeframe, partially due to reliance on technology induced by the COVID-19 environment.

Extracurricular participation in activities such as sports, music, art, drama or afterschool clubs decreased from a five-year average of 68% to 64% in 2022.

OCMH said that these activities have a positive effect on mental health by improving self-esteem, resilience, social skills, school connections and academic performance.

The report also showed that while the number of school-based mental health professionals has increased, Wisconsin still lags behind in the recommended levels and half of the Wisconsin youth with a diagnosed mental health condition are not receiving treatment.

Data also shows that 34% of Wisconsin high school students feel “sad or hopeless” and nearly half — 48% — of LGBT youth have seriously considered committing suicide.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Children’s Bureau said that up to 80% of children in foster care have significant mental health issues, and Native American/Alaskan Native people report experiencing serious psychological distress 2.5 times more often than the general population in one month.

A Wisconsin Department of Health Services report reflects that increase in mental health services use in Brown County from 2,842 to 3,065; Door County from 478 to 535; Kewaunee County from 346 to 365; and Manitowoc County from 1,236 to 1,393, while Outagamie County decreased from 1,897 to 1,843.

Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin said that there is also a “huge discrepancy in access to mental health care in Wisconsin. Waitlists are weeks long, and the ratio of the population to mental health providers in Wisconsin is 440:1, 22.8% higher than the national average (the national average is 350:1).”

A 2022 University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute backed that up, stating that there are 440 people for each mental health provider in the state.

What’s being done

Access to mental health programs, social connectedness and family dynamics play a large role in breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma and other mental health issues.

OCMH said that “82% of Wisconsin high schoolers have an adult, besides their parents, whom they feel comfortable seeking help from. 67% of high schoolers have an adult at school they can talk to” adding that “just one accepting adult in the life of an LGBTQ youth can reduce their risk of a suicide attempt by 40%.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Wisconsin, which provides one-to-one mentoring for youth, said that when compared with their peers, youth matched with adults through their programs showed “84% improvement in socio-emotional competence, 82% improvement in avoidance of risky behaviors (and)

83% educational success.

Family & Childcare Resource of N.E.W. works to support family child development through education and support.

Programs such as the Triple P Positive Parenting Program focus on family dynamics and helping families grow together.

Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin makes mental health services accessible to the community and works to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.

Family Services said that they have received “over 45,000 plus calls, texts and chats across Wisconsin through the 988 Suicide Crisis Lifeline, which is housed within Family Services.

“In May of 2022, Wisconsin Lifeline became the primary call center for all 72 counties in Wisconsin. Three-digit dialing for 988 rolled out in July of 2022, making Wisconsin Lifeline easier to access and increasing call volume in the state. Wisconsin Lifeline calls increased by 26% following the rollout of 988, providing Wisconsin residents with life-saving crisis counseling at a moment’s notice. Our very own Crisis Center, which has served the region for 43 years, serves as the primary backup to Wisconsin Lifeline.”

This spring, Foundations Health & Wholeness added free mental health therapy services for foster parents and their youth, as well as biological parents who are associated with the Foster Care by Foundations program.

Through the “Get Kids Ahead initiative” state funding is being provided to public and independent charter schools to grow Comprehensive School Mental Health Systems to provide supports and services for social and emotional well-being in Wisconsin school districts.

Through the initiative, school districts were eligible for a per-pupil allocation in funding.

In May, the Unified School District of De Pere (USDDP) selected Care Solace and its Care Companion program to expand the district’s access to mental health and substance use treatment.

“Support for mental health issues is a top concern expressed to us by our community,” says USDDP Superintendent Chris Thompson. “Care Solace has a proven track record of effectively coordinating mental health provider access for more than 300 school districts throughout the US. We believe they will be a valuable resource that our students, staff, families and community members can turn to in their time of need.”

The program assists in navigating the mental health care system.

“It’s hard to know where to begin and which provider would be a good fit. Then it can take weeks or even months to get an appointment. Care Solace is a single point of contact to help manage all the variables, and they can do it much more quickly than an individual can,” added USDDP Director of Student Services Jerry Nicholson.

During Public Schools Week, Evers said that no one working at the state level should say that we are doing enough in addressing the mental health crisis.

“Folks, ‘enough’ will be enough when these are not the statistics we’re reading about our kids in the news. It’s time to get serious,” he stated.

This story is part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab’s fourth series, “Families Matter,” covering issues important to families in the region. The lab is a local news collaboration in northeast Wisconsin made up of six news organizations, which includes Green Bay Press-Gazette, Appleton Post-Crescent, FoxValley365, The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Journalism Department is an educational partner. Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to fund the initiative. The mission of the lab is to “collaborate to identify and fill information gaps to help residents explore ways to improve their communities and lives — and strengthen democracy.”

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