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Visions Journal

Addressing Trauma Through an Intergenerational, Systems Lens

Gary Thandi, MSW, RSW, EdD (pending)

Reprinted from the Intergenerational Trauma issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (2), pp. 32-34

Stock photo of a man leaning against a desk

In my 20-plus years in the social services sector, I have tried to support people with trauma from many angles—as a probation officer, counsellor, hospital social worker, qualitative researcher, program manager and clinical supervisor.

But in all my previous careers, despite all the amazing social workers and counsellors I met and who do incredibly impactful work, the needs continued to outstrip resources. Far too many vulnerable people fell through significant gaps in services. All too often, the services we provided only addressed the specific behaviours that often brought them to the attention of criminal justice and health care systems, rather than root causes of these behaviours.

A major cause of the suffering among people I worked with was intergenerational trauma, which impacted them, their family members, extended families and communities. Yet our interventions failed to address this trauma. Our programs tended to be individualized and focused on a single client’s poor physical health, substance use or harmful and risky behaviours—often symptoms of intergenerational trauma.

This is why I started my own non-profit agency, Moving Forward Family Services,1 which I now lead. I wanted to ensure there was a way to look past the symptoms to support clients’ deeper needs.

Intergenerational trauma in the South Asian community

I believe my experiences working with one population in particular exemplifies the challenges brought by intergenerational trauma: immigrant South Asian Canadians, of which a large number have migrated from the Punjab Region of India to BC, including the Abbotsford area.

Back in the early 2000s, in my time as a probation officer, I was the only one who could communicate with these clients without an interpreter, as I could speak to them in their first language, Punjabi. I worked with South Asian immigrant men who had been placed on court-ordered probation for violence towards their partners. Many also struggled with substances, such as alcohol. Initially these men were hesitant to engage—understandably, as they were concerned any disclosures could lead to more entanglements with the justice system (or impact their residency status, if they were not yet citizens).

Over time, however, some would open up to me about their day-to-day struggles with substance use and relationships. Their partners, South Asian immigrant women, also reached out to me frequently, as they too wanted support for their own stressors, and to help their spouse in recovery. Often, these women found little to meet their cultural and linguistic needs.

My training until then had mostly focused on providing brief, solution-focused interventions to manage the client load—basically “patch them up and move them out” so that I could go on to the next client. My work focused on supporting individual clients to learn new ways to manage anger, develop skills to improve relationships and reduce harmful behaviours like risky drinking. I learned, however, that the substance use and relationship discord may also be symptoms of trauma, including intergenerational trauma.

We know that, over time, traumatic events can bring about a vast range of issues, including feelings of guilt or shame, self-blame, feeling unsafe or physiologically unwell, detachment from emotions or numbing, physical unwellness, worsening mental illnesses and increases in substance use to cope with overwhelming emotional and physical states. Why weren’t services making the link for this community?

Learning the history to understand the pain

My interest grew in helping this group. In 2010 I undertook qualitative research on intimate partner violence in South Asian communities. In that process, I uncovered subject areas I had not considered before: intergenerational traumas that many South Asian families had experienced.

I was familiar with major events like the 1947 Partition (the division, by colonial Britain, of South Asia into India and Pakistan) and the 1984 Sikh Genocide (organized murders of thousands of Sikhs in India). But I had not realized how impactful those events continued to be, not just those who directly lived through them, but for the generations that followed.

Many lives were lost during these events. Someone who lost their spouse may have been overcome with grief and been less able to engage with their children. Later, these adult children in turn may have struggled to develop strong attachment bonds with their own kids. Many who witnessed the bloodshed or were tortured may have turned to substances to cope with their traumas; their children and grandchildren, who may not have had similar experiences, nonetheless may have “learned” this method of coping.

These insights led to my professional move from the criminal justice sector to social work and counselling. Once I established a therapeutic relationship with members of this community, immigrant men and women were able to talk more openly about their history, like their childhood in India, and about acculturation stressors when they migrated to Canada, meaning stresses specific to adjusting to another cultural context.

While grateful for the welcoming nature of most Canadians, most also shared experiences of racism and discrimination in Canada. When I have worked with the children or grandchildren of immigrants (who often come to me due to school or workplace stress, family conflict or substance struggles), they are familiar with many family and world events, but often do not realize how these impacted their ancestors, grandparents, parents or their own lives.

Applying a systems lens to get to the root of trauma

Entire families are impacted by intergenerational trauma, yet our systems individualize them. An adult may act out physically, ending up in the criminal justice system, while the victim goes through victim support and children go through school or Ministry of Children and Family Development. Unfortunately, these important tools for support keep people apart and lack resources. As a result, many who are referred to them will not receive any support whatsoever. Opportunities are missed to address the trauma, and thus heal at a family or community level.

While South Asian families are impacted by trauma and intergenerational trauma, so, too, are many other families who call Canada home. They all need services that can address trauma. When I established my agency, Moving Forward Family Services (MFFS), I wanted to offer both individual supports and low-barrier, timely, culturally responsive supports for the whole web of relationships linking people together.

For South Asian and other communities, MFFS offers trauma-informed counselling and support for individuals, families and extended families at any age, anywhere in Canada and for any presenting issues. We provide services in nearly 20 different languages, in person and online, with minimal waits. We also do outreach to connect with underserved communities by going where there are, to community centres and places of worship. And there is still so much more to do.

I realize these are lofty undertakings. Yet I am emboldened and inspired by many other like-minded counsellors and social workers who share a similar vision. I look forward to connecting with more.

About the authors

Gary is founder and Executive Director of Moving Forward Family Services, a non-profit providing low-barrier counselling across BC. Over the past 20 years he has been a probation officer, counsellor, hospital social worker, program manager, researcher and clinical supervisor. A widowed father of two boys, Gary identifies as a wounded healer

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