Psychological Effects

Numerous clinical observations by mental health professional indicate that Aboriginal people have a much higher-rate of mental health problems than non-Aboriginals.[1] Some people argue that the higher rate of mental illness is a direct result of contact with European settlers and subsequent changes in Aboriginal life.[2]One such of these changes was the occurrence and implementation of residential school systems. In which survivors have repeatedly cited patterns of abuse. Figures suggest that at least one of every five students suffered sexual abuse at the schools, established in the 19th century to assimilate First Nations children and strip them of their aboriginal culture and language.[3]

One such study on American Aboriginal people found that a childhood sexual abuse history was associated with three or more psychiatric diagnoses in adulthood.[4] An informative study was done in 2003 for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Researchers reviewed 127 cases from Aboriginal people who had sued the federal government in Canada and various churches for cases of abuse.[5] The results of their research were shocking. They found that all of the files that assessed whether the subject suffered sexual abuse during residential school contained a report of at least one occurrence of such abuse. [6]Several files indicated more than 10 or an unknown number of times.[7] They also uncovered high rates of physical abuse. Perpetrators of abuse were most often-dormitory staff (27.9%), other students (15.4%) and school staff (14.7%).[8] This prevalence of abuse that existed in residential schools resulted in a large problem of substance abuse in not only the survivors but also their families. Many communities attributed alcohol or drug abuse by their friends to boarding school experiences.Not only did survivors turn to substances to help dull the pain of their experiences but often time’s parents did as well. The experience of having their children forcibly removed from them was often times too much for many to bear. Parents often turned to alcohol or drugs for relief. In the same research done for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, researchers also analyzed some self-destructive behaviors that occurred in survivors and their families. They found that after leaving residential schools 90.9% of students reported alcohol use.[9] Another finding showed that during the students stay at residential schools, 70.8% of mothers used alcohol as a coping mechanism and 16.7% of fathers.[10] Furthermore, an overwhelming 26.3% were found to have a substance abuse disorder.[11] While this study only covered 127 reported cases of abuse, it is likely that the same pattern existed in most residential schools across both the United States and Canada. Not to mention that thousands of cases of abuse probably are still unreported because they are too painful to relive. A study done at the University of Alaska Anchorage provided many testimonies of survivors. One survivor says, “When I look at my classmates, almost every single one of them was plagued with alcoholism and drug abuse and a lot of them are gone because of either alcoholism or drugs. I mean it was a devastation and I would say that after all these years, I can see a glimmer of hope that our people are coming out of that and starting to realize what boarding schools did to us because here we are.[12]” Another survivor’s response was told by his children, “he became an alcoholic. “You wonder why after living in a place like that?”[13] The combination of statistics and testimonies provide substantial amounts of evidence to support substance abuse as a result of attending residential schools.

Not only was substance abuse a problem that resulted in the survivors but also on other generations. Parental substance abuse disorders can also impact children. Parental substance abuse and dependence have a negative impact on the physical and emotional well-being of children and can cause home environments to become chaotic and unpredictable, leading to child maltreatment.[14] The children’s physical and emotional needs often take a back seat to their parents’ activities related to obtaining or using drugs and alcohol.[15] Not to mention the impact substances can have on prenatal development. One survivor recalls, “The Ministry came and told me that if my husband and I couldn’t quit drinking, they would take our children away.”[16] Substance abuse as a result of attending Indian residential schools not only impacts the survivor but also has cross-generational effects on parents and children.

The next effect to be examined will be the existence and prevalence of a syndrome known as Residential School Syndrome. Historians and psychologists disagree over the existence of a specific syndrome relating to the residential school system. Many argue that residential school syndrome is merely a unique form of posttraumatic stress disorder.[17] PTSD is defined by the American Psychological Association as an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events such as combat, crime, an accident or natural disaster.[18] Under this definition many researchers classify residential schools as extremely traumatic events. Residential School Syndrome is a subtype of PTSD, which focuses on intense feelings of fear and anger and the tendency to abuse alcohol and drugs.[19] Residential School Syndrome is not defined or approved by the American Psychological Association. Furthering the inexistence of residential school syndrome is that in order to define a syndrome there needs to be a regular cluster of symptoms associated with having attended Residential School. With the large scale of the residential school system it is impossible that specifics of individuals experiences were uniform. Even if the experiences across all schools and by all students were physically and philosophically coherent there would be no reason to expect uniformity of response to it.[20] To believe there was such a thing as Residential School Syndrome one would have to assert that people with widely different experiences behaving in widely different ways were suffering from the same disorder.[21] A further argument against Residential School Syndrome lies more with the victims themselves as to the actual definition. The creation of Residential School Syndrome allows survivors to identify themselves as suffering from Residential School Syndrome and that their problems arise from it.[22] Not only does this release them from taking personal responsibility for their actions but allows everyone to collude in identifying the client as the source of the problem.[23] Some argue that this plays into the hands of the government and religious officials responsible for having devised and implemented residential schooling.[24] With the focus on people suffering from Residential School Syndrome people seem to forget the genocidal intention of residential schooling.

Some refute this claim that Residential School Syndrome does not exist. Some state that residential school syndrome has characteristics that do not fit into the definition of posttraumatic stress disorder. Thus, a separate classification is needed. In 2001, Doctor Charles Brasfield of Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada suggested the diagnostic term of Residential School Syndrome to the British Columbia Medical Journal. Doctor Brasfield stated there is symptomology such as recurrent intrusive memories, nightmares, occasional flashbacks, and quite striking avoidance of anything that might be reminiscent of the Indian residential school experience that are quite similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.[25] However, he then goes on to state that there are particular symptomology that are only similar to other people who have attended a boarding school for an extended period of time.[26] Brasfield came up with three distinct ways in which the qualifications of Residential School Syndrome differ from the APA approved criteria for PTSD. First, Brasfield recognizes a diminished interest in significant cultural activities.[27] Second, Brasfield recognizes a persistent tendency to abuse alcohol or other drugs with accompanying outbursts of anger.[28] Third, Brasfield states that residential school syndrome highlights possible deficient parenting skills.

Although both views of the existence or inexistence of Residential school syndrome provide adequate support, I will use the definition of Residential School Syndrome as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I choose to use this definition because it gives me adequate access to prevalence rates of post-traumatic stress disorder amongst survivors. With Residential School Syndrome not defined or acknowledged by the APA many studies do not report their statistics of mental disorders in these terms, choosing only to go with the APA acknowledged disorder of PTSD. Investigations into the prevalence of mental health disorders in survivors of residential schools show a scary trend. The research done for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in 2003 discovered that 93 of the 127 cases examined were diagnosed with a mental health issue. Of these 93 people 64.2% were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers also discovered that of those diagnosed with PTSD, nearly half (49.5%) were also diagnosed with at least one other mental disorder, most commonly major depression (30.4 %), substance abuse disorder (34.8%), avoidant personality disorder (26.1%), and borderline personality disorder (13.0%)[29]. This data emphasizes the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among survivors of residential schools. This is a mental health disorder that not only affects the survivors but also their families as well.

Post-traumatic stress can make someone extremely difficult to live with. Post-traumatic stress is characterized by nightmares, flashbacks, and intense emotional or physical reactions. Many people with post-traumatic stress find themselves avoiding social situations. This cannot only alienate family but also cause them to have significant problems in social and work relationships. If one is unable to attend work because of post-traumatic stress they may lose their job and their family could take a significant financial hit. Post-traumatic stress has its most significant impact on children. Those with post-traumatic stress generally feel detached from others. This detachment can lead to behavior problems in their children.[30] The numbing and avoidance that occurs with PTSD is linked with lower satisfaction in parenting. Dr. Toledo-Benalli who was a panelist at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City, said the pain she suffered as a second-generation survivor affected not only herself but her children as well. “Many times I have said to my children that I’m sorry for the way I treat them. This is so, because parents learn parenting skills from their parents. It is said that the oppressed become the oppressors.[31]”Residential schools cause the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder in numerous numbers of survivors. This disorder impacts the personal relationships many survivors have with their families, especially their children. The residential school system continues to cause intergenerational effects.

[1] Ingrid Sochting et al., “Traumatic pasts in Canadian Aboriginal people: Further support for a complex trauma conceptualization?” BC Medical Journal 49, no. 6 (2007): 320.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Thousands abused at residential schools, stats show,” The Canadian Press, last modified January 17, 2009, accessed November 11, 2014.

[4] Sochting, 320.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sochting, 323.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Diane Hirshberg and Suzanne Sharp, “Thirty Years Later: The Long-Term Effect of Boarding Schools on Alaska Natives and Their Communities,” University of Alaska Anchorage, last modified September 2005, accessed November 11, 2014.

[13] Caitlin Thompson, “Nukalk Residential School Survivors Share Their Stories,” Coast Mountain News, last modified April 8, 2013, accessed November 11, 2014.

[14] “Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children’s Bureau ICF International,” Child Welfare Information Gateway, last modified 2009, accessed 11 November 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16]Caitlin Thompson, “Nukalk Residential School Survivors Share Their Stories,” Coast Mountain News.

[17] Llyod Robertson, “Residential School Experience: Syndrome or Historical Trauma, ” University of Calgary, last modified 2006, accessed November 11, 2014.

[18] “Post-traumatic stress disorder,” American Psychological Association, accessed November 19, 2014.

[19] Llyod Robertson, “Residential School Experience: Syndrome or Historical Trauma.”

[20] Roland Christjohn and Sherri Young, The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experiences in Canada, (Penticton: Theytus Books, 1997,) 81.

[21] Christjohn, 81-82.

[22] Christjohn, 82.

[23] Christjohn, 82.

[24] Christjohn, 83.

[25] Charles Brasfield, “Residential School Syndrome,” BCMedicalJournal. Vol 43, No 2. March 2001. Pages 78-81.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Llyod Robertson, “Residential School Experience: Syndrome or Historical Trauma,” University of Calgary, last modified 2006, accessed November 11, 2014.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Sochting, 324.

[30] “Effects of PTSD on Family,” U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, last modified January 3, 2014, accessed November 18, 2014.

[31] Karen Lynch, “Working to heal the wounds of boarding school,” The Native American Press, accessed November 18, 2014.