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Intergenerational Trauma in South Asian Communities

A South Asian family embracing in their backyard, overcoming intergenerational trauma.

Many South Asians are becoming open to Mental Health therapy. The younger South Asian community is addressing its issues in individual, family, and couples therapy. The South Asian community consists of many different cultures, languages, and traditions. Therapists need to be cognizant of differences in this community. The South Asian community has many generational traumatic experiences due to conflict in their region, cultures, and migration. During an assessment, it is important to ask where you migrated from, what stories have you heard from your parents or grandparents, and what pushed your family to migrate.

It is important to ask these questions to address any intergenerational trauma that may exist. Intergenerational trauma is a concept that describes the transmission of trauma from the previous generation to the subsequent generations of families. Intergenerational trauma includes domestic violence, sexual abuse, migrant trauma, witnessing racism, microaggressions, patriarchal trauma, etc. As a therapist, it is important to educate oneself when a South Asian client verbalizes their historical trauma.

Some examples of historical trauma in South Asian communities are:

  • The Indian Indenture System – “Between 1838 and 1917, western European governments allowed their planters in the Caribbean to import an estimated 500,000 Indian indentured servants from India to work on their plantations.”
  • The partition of India – “Muslims left India for Pakistan, mostly heading west, while Hindus and Sikhs made the opposite journey. As many as 20 million people fled. Both sides left devastation in their wake.”
  • 1984 Sikh genocide – “In June of that year, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military assault on the most significant religious center for the Sikhs, Darbar Sahib (i.e., the Golden Temple) in Amritsar, Punjab. The attack killed thousands of civilians. On October 31, 1984, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Her assassination triggered genocidal killings around the country, particularly in India’s capital city, New Delhi.”
  • Bangladesh War of Independence – “In 1971, an internal crisis in Pakistan resulted in a third war between India and Pakistan and the secession of East Pakistan, creating the independent state of Bangladesh.”
  • The expulsions of South Asians in East Africa – “In early August 1972, the President of Uganda Idi Admin ordered the expulsion of his country’s Indians, giving them 90 days to leave the country. At the time of the expulsion, there were about 80,000 individuals of Indian descent in Uganda, of whom 23,000 had their applications for citizenship both processed and accepted.”
  • The Rohingya crisis – “The Rohingya genocide is a series of ongoing persecutions and killings of the Muslim Rohingya people by the military of Myanmar.” 

Every region in the South Asian community has a specific history that could have affected a client and their ancestry. These traumas are also the reason why the South Asian community decides to migrate or immigrate. To assess for historical trauma, a therapist may utilize exercises like Family Tree or have the client explore their ancestry via genetic testing. At times, the client may not know the full history of their community as their community had to be silent and not share information either as a way to minimize/cope or for self-preservation.

Trauma can coexist with anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, and substance use disorders. Therapists can also assess for shame, high sense of vulnerability and helplessness, low self-esteem, dissociation, attachment injuries, aggression, and reactivity to stress. Therapeutic intervention that can help with intergenerational trauma is EMDR, Somatic therapy, Internal Family Systems, Exposure therapy, and CBT therapy. The therapist should explore feelings of shame and guilt. It is also important to validate the client’s motivation to seek therapy because this step can be very difficult for the client. 

Therapy can be an opportunity to break cycles of generational trauma, and pass along healthy coping skills to the next generation. Systematic attacks on a person’s identity are harmful because identity and tradition give meaning to life. It is a basic human need to feel connected to a community and feel accepted. 

“In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it.  Marianne Williamson

-Sukhi Sandhu, LPC

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