Disrupted Attachments: A Social Context Complex Trauma Framework and the Lives of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada
Journal of Aboriginal Health, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 48-99, November 2009
52 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2010
Date Written: November 2009
The idea of "disrupted attachments" speaks to the multiple levels on which the historic and contemporary assaults on Aboriginal peoples in Canada have resonated. Not only have the policies of colonialism expressly aimed to sever the attachment of Canada's First Nations to their land, customs, culture, modes of self-governance, languages and ways of life, but the traumatic impact of these disrupted attachments have reverberated through both the communities and through the individual lives of Aboriginal peoples in this country. The relatively new and more expansive conceptualization of "complex trauma" in the mental health field has, as one of its core and defining features, alterations in relationships with one's sense of self, as well as alterations to relationships with others. We reframe the idea of "alterations" in relationships to that of "harms" to relationships to self and others, and situate these harms within the insights of attachment theory. These harms to relationships can be usefully conceptualized as "disrupted attachments." In this way then, the idea of "disrupted attachment" eloquently speaks to the myriad and fundamental ways in which the individuals and the communities comprising the Aboriginal peoples in Canada have been traumatized.
To date, the nature and extent to which traumatic events and the ensuing trauma responses have shaped the lives of Aboriginal peoples in Canada is only partially and imperfectly understood and recognized. These traumas and their impacts are experienced at once collectively and individually. These impacts relate to historical and contemporary experiences of Aboriginal peoples and communities of Canada, and are centrally connected to being subject to policies and strategies of cultural assimilation and attempted cultural destruction.
There has been a relative explosion, however, in the field of trauma and trauma studies in recent years. Most of this work has taken place in the traditional fields of psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience and medicine. Significant developments in these fields have helped to better understand the ways in which traumatic events can have far reaching and pervasive effects on people’s lives, and, in particular, have shed light on the way in which traumatic events in early childhood can seriously and negatively affect human development across cognitive, psychological, neurological and physical dimensions.
This research, particularly when integrated into an expanded framework which takes account of social context, has great relevance for understanding important aspects of the lives of Aboriginal peoples. Given that the Aboriginal peoples of Canada have been subjected to centuries of genocidal state policies, and continue, in great numbers, to live in conditions characterized by relative deprivation and contexts of abuse, the insights of a trauma framework can help to illuminate the ways in which these traumatic events have shaped the lives of Aboriginal peoples at the individual as well as at the community levels.
A traditional trauma framework is not broad enough to grasp the complexities and dimensions of these experiences. Instead, an expanded trauma framework that explicitly attends to and integrates an analysis of social context, including the social relations of inequality — race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender and sexuality, and abilities and disabilities — is necessary.
We describe this approach as a social context complex trauma framework. More specifically, given the emergence of the new and important diagnostic category of complex post-traumatic stress, which describes the impact of traumatic events which are often ongoing and chronic, we discuss what we call a “social context complex traumatic stress framework” to analyze some of the dimensions of the lives and experiences of the peoples of Canada’s First Nations.
In this paper, we explicate the contours of a social context complex trauma framework, building from the insights of the fields of psychology and neuroscience that are beginning to provide a fuller development of the pervasive and developmental impacts of trauma. We engage the important literature on historical trauma in relation to Aboriginal peoples, which seeks to identify the collective harms of trauma on entire communities and the ways in which these harms can be "transmitted" intergenerationally. Nevertheless, the dynamics of "intergenerational transmission" are inadequately described and explained in this literature. Rather, we argue that a social context complex trauma framework better fills in the gaps and provides a more complicated and multi-leveled way of understanding collective trauma in communities.
In developing our conceptualization of a social context complex trauma framework, we draw on the foundational constructs from trauma theory, from attachment theory, and from the insights of the literature on historical trauma, as well as the interdisciplinary research literature on the health and well-being of Aboriginal peoples in order to advance a developmental perspective, situated within a political analysis of social contexts of injustice and inequality. We further discuss some of the important ways in which this expanded conceptual framework can help to understand the ways in which experiences of trauma have shaped and harmed so many Aboriginal individuals and communities in Canada, and point to some directions for healing and transformation efforts. Most importantly, we speak to the need for a strengths-based trauma model and approach, which identifies and expands the resiliencies of the Aboriginal peoples.
Keywords: Aboriginal peoples, complex trauma, historical trauma, Aboriginal communities
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