It is almost inevitable that mental traumas would surface in a generation of people who lived through traumatising events such as war, poverty and displacement.
However, until recently, asking for psychological help has been seen mostly as a sign of weakness or completely disregarded as a form of therapy.
A 2014 study from the University of Bedfordshire by Senior Lecturer in Public Health Chris Papadopoulos and then student Vasiliki Tzouvara found Greeks residing outside of Greece were more likely to have negative views about those with mental health issues despite being sympathetic to their struggles.
“Overall, the Greek people sampled in our survey were found to possess medium high level of authoritarian attitudes (the view that people with mental illness are inferior) and a moderate level of social restrictiveness (the view that they should be restricted and carefully controlled in society). The results also found a high ‘benevolence’ score, which indicates that they are also sympathetic to people with mental illness. Greeks educated in England (instead of Greece), who were more religious, who had less knowledge about mental illness and less personal experience of mental illness were most likely to hold stigmatizing attitudes.”
Despite these findings more exposure to services has somewhat helped pave the way to normalising reaching out during difficult times.
Greek Welfare Centre NSW of Greek Orthodox Archdiocese psychologist Maria Petrohilos works closely with the elderly Greek community, helping many navigate mental health issues.
Ms Petrohilos explains that in order to understand why certain attitudes towards psychological help has been formed, that we must first look at the context of one’s experiences.
“A lot of the elderly people I have seen probably lived in Greece for the first 20 to 30 years of their life, I would guess that the majority of those would have no idea about counselling and psychological therapy…and then they’ve come to Australia and lived here for 50 years and had resettlement issues that was not something on their radar either,” Ms Petrohilos said.
One way of combating this lack of knowledge requires putting mental health issues into context for elders and finding a way to attribute it to a ‘physical’ element of themselves.
“It’s inevitable that they’re going to get confused, because they use ‘nevra’ to mean nerves but it also means tension and irritability. For them to have a cause and effect is helpful. So if the doctor says some about their ‘nevra’, it’s like their foot or their hand, they can put a physical component to it. In which case the doctor might say ‘you need to see another doctor’, they may go see a psychologist,” Ms Petrohilos said.
Ms Petrohilos says that if that is not the case, another way an elder may come to visit her for help might be under the guise of needing assistance with forms and other information.
“That makes it safe to talk about a ‘matter’, because you go to an office to talk about your ‘matters’ and it’s fine and there’s no deception that you’re not coping or that it’s to do with your mental health. But once they come and you start doing a proper assessment and you’re asking the questions then the might go ‘oh well actually this other thing is worrying me’, but they can still leave with their appearance and integrity intact,” Ms Petrohilos explained.
All in all, the common denominator amongst elders is that they find solace in their Greek practitioners and psychologists because they are able to understand their challenges in cultural context whilst also using a language they understand.
Although the understanding of psychological help is growing in one way or another, there is the question of whether or not intergentrational trauma could have been prevented if help was embraced earlier on.
La Trobe university offers the subject Multicultural Australia: The Greek Contribution which touches on the effects of forced expulsion of the Asia Minor refugees to the Greek mainland in 1923 and gives some insights into the impact it has had further down the line.
La Trobe University Lecturer and Coordinator of Greek Studies Stephie Nikoloudis shares how this intergenerational trauma may have manifested.
“Not talking about events in order to spare younger members of the family the horrors of war and themselves the pain of re-living those horrors often resulted in an equally painful disconnection between the generations, with children not being able to understand why their parents acted or thought the way they did,” Ms Nikoloudis said.
The majority of the intergenerational trauma that educational and developmental psychologist Angela Zervos encounters comes from the aforementioned sense of loss of family and a life once lived.
“I tend to find Greeks in Greece are more relaxed and have evolved whereas here they kept their family tight, for safety and security because of that trauma of leaving their home and having all that loss has really impacted on how they have parented,” Ms Zervos said.
In turn, these parenting practices have had effects that present as anxiety and depression in the now adult children.
“Anxiety is especially prevalent and I believe a certain level of distrust. They kept their families close to them and issues are dealt with within the family. As time went on your caregivers were cousins or family friends or even people from the same village and so they really didn’t trust outsiders. As young children, it’s not spoken about, but that fear is passed on. So you’ve got that feeling and emotion without knowing why. So children now will go ‘why is mum holding on to my hand extra tight? Why am I not allowed to go to sleepovers or camps?’,” Ms Zervos said.
The silver lining, despite dealing with trauma passed on from their parents, is that many Gen Xers and even those who came a bit before them are more welcoming to the idea of psychological help.
“We all are better and more proactive in asking for help. Since the Better Access scheme came along in 2006 there’s a lot more education at school, from teachers, the GP’s have had a lot more training, there’s a lot more awareness in the community,” Ms Zervos said.
If you or anyone you know needs help call Lifeline on 13 11 14