Module 1 > Infrastructure disruptions > Historical and cultural trauma

What are the lasting impacts of surviving a war—or having grandparents who did? And what about being a member of a group whose ancestors were forced into slavery or into internment camps? These are examples of historical trauma. Historical trauma refers to a complex and collective trauma experienced over time and across generations by a group of people who share an identity, affiliation, or circumstance. Cultural trauma is a related concept and occurs when members of a group feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks on their group consciousness, forever marking their memories and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways. For example, young adults in underserved communities identify both historical and cultural trauma as lasting legacies of oppression that pose substantial threats to their mental health. Large-scale infrastructure disruptions are a form of cultural trauma that if left unaddressed, can become the historical trauma of subsequent generations.


Yesterday’s traumas threaten today’s mental health. Young people, particularly young people of color, speak passionately and poignantly about how events from decades ago—enslavement, acts of war in the Pacific during World War II, forced confiscation of land in the mid-20th century, centuries of injustice perpetrated against Native people—are significant forces in the lives of their families and communities in the here and now.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, resulting in the long-term displacement of many New Orleaneans to other parts of the country. The failure of the government at all levels to plan, prepare for, and respond aggressively to the storm compounded the trauma. In particular, the lack of protection for disproportionately affected populations amplified issues of race and class. High rates of depression and suicide are one of the storm’s legacies.

Review one or more of the resources below

Behind the Asterisk: Perspectives on Young Adult Mental Health from “Small and Hard to Reach” Communities (Report)

Behind the Asterisk: Historical and Cultural Trauma (Video)

Young Minds Matter: Historical and Cultural Trauma (Blog)

Reflection Questions

  1. How do historical and cultural trauma show up in your community?

  2. How might these traumas show up during infrastructure disruptions?

  3. What does that mean for collaboration and partnership?

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Photo credit: "More New Orleans flooding" by Tidewater Muse is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0