The violence continuum
: Australian Aboriginal male violence and generational post-traumatic stress

  • Caroline Lisbeth Atkinson

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    This research explores the contention that the history of widespread traumatic stressors and the generational transmission of these traumatic stressors throughout the Australian Aboriginal population are manifested in a series of social problems. The high levels of violence we are now witnessing in some Aboriginal families and communities, which in turn contribute to the high incarceration rates of Aboriginal men for violent crimes, are seen as one of the most serious symptoms resulting from these traumatic stressors. This research aimed to establish if Aboriginal men who are considered violent have histories of traumatic stressors and demonstrate psychological symptoms associated with trauma stress, as well as whether they have experienced generational patterns of traumatic stressors and dysfunction.

    Using a cross-cultural, multi-methodological, and multi-method Indigenist approach, this research developed a cross-cultural instrument, capable of measuring traumatic stressors and trauma-related symptoms relevant to Australian Aboriginal peoples. This was then employed to investigate the relationship between violence and generational post-traumatic stress among 58 Aboriginal males who had been incarcerated for committing violent crimes.

    The cross-cultural instrument, titled the ‘Australian Aboriginal Version of the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire’ (AAVHTQ), was developed in the first phase of the research. This was achieved through documenting trauma symptoms, as defined by the DSM-III-R for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) including identifying specific cultural idioms of distress reactions and traumatic stressors relevant to Australian Aboriginal peoples, by extracting key themes through thematic analysis of major seminal reports and focus group discussions with key informants. The AAVHTQ was then field tested on 58 Aboriginal men incarcerated for committing violent crimes to establish if the research participants met the clinical criteria for PTSD, and to investigate the nature, level of exposure and frequency of traumatic stressors experienced and to identify the prevalence of specific types of trauma symptoms. Additionally, the research explored patterns of generational trauma and violence through the construction of genohistograms obtained through semi-structured, in-depth interviews, which allowed detection of changes in the rates of traumatic stressors and dysfunctional behaviours between the current and older generations.

    The research found that over half (58.6%) of the study population were PTSD symptomatic (according to the AAVHTQ) and that the majority had been exposed to a significantly high number of traumatic stressors. The more traumatic stressors endorsed, or the more cumulative the amount of traumatic exposure, the more likely the participants were PTSD symptomatic. Research participants who endorsed traumatic stressors associated with low formal and informal social support and/or a lack of personal and social identity, and who had been sexually abused and/or suffered from symptoms associated with precarious mental health, low self-esteem and social isolation were significantly more likely to be PTSD symptomatic and appeared to resort to violence to release their trauma.

    Qualitative and quantitative data highlighted the endemic nature and normalisation of family violence, grief and loss, and alcohol and drug misuse as both symptoms of and causes of traumatic stressors. Traumatic stressors relating to institutional violence, fractured families, acculturation (colonisation) and racism were also identified as significant traumatic stressors through the qualitative results. Significant increases in traumatic stressors and dysfunctional behaviours were also established in the research participants’ current and older generational histograms, lending support for the notion of generational trauma and dysfunction.

    These results suggest that the high rates of Aboriginal men being incarcerated for crimes of violence could be due to a history of widespread traumatic stressors that are being transmitted across the generations, and which will continue to increase across successive generations without effective intervention.

    The results of this research have important implications for the development of targeted assessment and treatment for Aboriginal males who have been convicted of violent offences and providing a well-validated measure that would be useful in assessing the success of such interventions, as well as for potentially addressing issues of violence across Aboriginal families and communities throughout Australia.
    Date of AwardDec 2008
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorSharon Mccallum (Supervisor)

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