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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Post-Traumatic Stress in Women Survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools

Ingrid Sochting, PhD, RPsych

Reprinted from "Women's" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (4), p. 13-14

The number of Canadian Aboriginal women with a traumatic past is extremely high compared to any other racial group. Sexual abuse rates, for example, appear to be much higher than that of, and informal estimates suggest that women living on Indian reserves are especially vulnerable, with a sexual abuse incidence of about 90%. The Canadian residential school system is responsible for a significant portion of this incidence rate. The current high number of physical and sexual assaults perpetrated against Aboriginal women may also be a consequence of the residential school system. Several generations of both men and women have suffered long-term cultural and psychological damage.

This report provides a brief overview of the residential school system followed by discussions of (1) the types of psychological trauma typically seen in former residential school students and (2) the most responsible treatment approaches. The focus is primarily on issues specific to women.

Canada's residential schools

The history of residential schools for Aboriginal Canadians is described in a number of documents.1–3 Residential schools in British Columbia operated from 1863 to 1984. In BC, there were 16 schools, and attendance was mandatory between the ages of seven and 15. The residential schools were part of a policy of assimilation designed to cut the ties between Aboriginal people and their ancestral culture and lifestyle. To this end, the residential schools focused on the supremacy of the English language and on Christianity as the only acceptable spiritual belief system.

At present, Aboriginal people are suing the federal government and churches for the various abuses they endured during their residential school stays; however, only physical and sexual abuse are compensated. Some former students state that they had a good residential school experience and felt that it enabled them to become successful in dominant Canadian society. Many others, however, claim that the residential school experience, in addition to physical and sexual abuse, caused severe psychological harm. This has made them less able to function well as adults in most areas of life, including intimate adult relations, parenting and work.

Psychological trauma reactions

Mental health workers offering services to survivors of the residential schools agree that the symptom picture is often broad and includes extremes of impaired interpersonal functioning, poor self-image, inability to control negative emotions, vulnerability to repeated sexual assaults, and serious drug and substance abuse.

Surprisingly, although many survivors report the classic symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—intrusions (e.g., flashbacks, nightmares), avoidance (i.e., purposefully avoiding thoughts, emotions, people, places) and hyperarousal (e.g., irritation, agitation, difficulty concentrating)—many do not. This is consistent with studies on other groups of people subjected to longterm physical, sexual or psychological abuse, indicating that many people with an indisputable traumatic past do not develop classic PTSD symptoms. Rather, they develop symptoms such as a sense of being permanently damaged, a tendency to harm oneself or be harmed by others, as well as a general lack of normal psychological development.5 These latter symptoms are generally referred to as ‘complex post-traumatic stress disorder’6 or, in the case of Canadian Aboriginals, ‘residential school syndrome.’

Both pictures of trauma emphasize not only the immediate trauma reaction but also longer-term personality disturbance and impaired capacity for interpersonal relations. Of particular concern is the possibility that untreated complex trauma reactions may negatively affect several generations. Young Aboriginal women whose parents attended residential schools often feel that they did not have adequate role models—particularly regarding sexual education, parenting, education and substance use.

Treatment Issues

Any complex trauma presentation needs a careful and comprehensive treatment plan based on a comprehensive understanding of the client. It is rarely enough to target only specific post-traumatic stress symptoms. Careful attention to how the different problems may be connected and to the underlying psychological and psychosocial mechanisms is also helpful. Substance abuse, for example, is often used as a method for coping with high anxiety, which can be triggered in anticipation of, or during, sexual relations for those with a sexual abuse past. At the same time, substance abuse is also one of the most critical risk factors for sexual victimization due to impaired judgement. An effective treatment approach needs to include interventions that target both the past trauma issues, as well as strategies for preventing further sexual assaults. This latter approach ideally includes sexual education and instruction in self-defence, ability to detect danger and assertiveness.

Other important treatment issues include encouraging the client to disclose past sexual abuse within a supportive therapeutic relationship. Most residential school survivors report that they were rejected when they attempted to inform the school staff or their parents about their abuse. Also, many daughters of residential school survivors report receiving little or no support from their parents when disclosing sexual abuse. Our clinical experience suggests this is more likely to happen in cases where the parents haven’t addressed their own residential school sexual abuse.

Clinical experience and research has consistently found that being heard and supported following a disclosure is positively related to psychological recovery, and that being disbelieved and invalidated may result in a more chronic trauma reaction.

About the Author

Ingrid is a clinical psychologist with Richmond Mental Health Services and a clinical instructor in Psychiatry at UBC

  1. Furniss, E. (1995). Victims of Benevolence: The Dark Legacy of the Williams Lake Residential School. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press.

  2. Haig-Brown, C. (1998). Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School. Vancouver, BC: Tillacum Library.

  3. Law Commission of Canada. (2000). Restoring Dignity: Responding to Child Abuse in Canadian Institutions. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Public Works and Government Services.

  4. Josefowitz, N. & Barnes, R. (2004, June). First Nations Residential School Experience: Factors Related to Stress and Resilience. Paper presented at the convention of the Canadian Psychological Association, St. John’s, NF.

  5. Wasco, S.M. (2003). Conceptualizing the harm done by rape: Applications of trauma theory to experiences of sexual assault. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 4, 309-322.

  6. Van der Kolk, B.A. (2002). The assessment and treatment of complex PTSD. In R. Yehuda (Ed.), Treating trauma survivors with PTSD. (pp. 127156). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

  7. Brasfield, C. (2001). Residential school syndrome. BC Medical Journal, 43(2), 57-112.

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