Trauma in the Womb

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Samuel López De Victoria, Ph.D.

Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist in private practice. He has taught as a psychology professor at the Miami Dade College in Miami, FL., the University of the Rockies in Colorado Springs, CO, and currently for the Ashford University in Clinton, IA. He can be contacted through his web site at

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López De Victoria, S. (2020). Trauma in the Womb. Psych Central.
Retrieved on November 20, 2020, from

Scientifically Reviewed

Last updated: 20 Nov 2020 (Originally: 20 Nov 2020)

Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 20 Nov 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.


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Pandemic heaps new fears and trauma on war-scarred Bosnians

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Memories of the Bosnian War are shaping Zdenka Sutalo’s perception of the coronavirus.

The 58-year-old unemployed woman attends group therapy sessions to work through the trauma of the 1992-95 conflict. As a young woman in Sarajevo, she endured bombardment, hunger, electricity shortages and was forced to break off her university studies for good. Today she sometimes has to be reminded to see the novel virus as a serious risk.

“The war was my most difficult experience in life,” she said after a recent therapy session that included painting pinecones and exercising in a Sarajevo park with others.

“As for the pandemic, the world survived plague and cholera and those are now just water under the bridge.”

As coronavirus cases surge in Bosnia, the pandemic is heaping more trouble on an impoverished nation that has never recovered economically or psychologically from a war that killed 100,000 people and forced 2.2 million from their homes.

Bosnian health authorities estimate that about half of the the Balkan nation’s nearly 3.5 million people have suffered some degree of trauma resulting from the war.

Mental health professionals fear that the pandemic will now exacerbate mental health problems and other health risks, and are speaking of a surge of new patients coming into their practices in recent months.

Tihana Majstorovic, a Sarajevo psychologist who led the pinecone-painting session, said the war experience was leading some Bosnians to downplay the threat of the pandemic, increasing the risk of its spread.

“People who survived the war perceive danger differently. Often, if they are not hungry, cold or have mortars exploding over their heads, they do not feel they are in danger,” said Majstorovic, who works for Menssana, a non-governmental mental health group in Sarajevo.

It has made them prone to “downplaying the threat, to behaving less responsibly than they should,” Majstorovic said. “It is not at all a healthy mechanism for adapting to a world threatened by an invisible virus.”

Remzija Setic, a clinical psychologist, said he, too, sees war survivors “recklesslessly” downplaying the risks of the virus.

But he also has patients who are suffering from heightened anxiety because some aspects of living through this pandemic are reminiscent of the war: being trapped indoors, seeing public spaces as dangerous, concern over getting food and separation from family and friends.

On top of that, pandemic fatigue is setting in.

Setic said he is sees a growing number of people, including many without diagnosed mental disorders, who complain of extreme irritability and physical exhaustion. That fatigue is also leading some young Bosnians without memory of the war to be cavalier about the risk of a virus that has infected nearly 56,000 people and killed more than 1,350 in the country.

“During the past seven to eight months, our population in general has grown exhausted out of an abundance of information, so they are starting to resist,” Setic said.

In some ways, Bosnia is better equipped than some other countries to handle the challenges.

Because of the trauma from the war, the past-quarter century of recovery has included creating psychological support networks for a traumatized population.

Thanks in part to initially abundant financial support from Western governments and international organizations, some 70 community-based mental health centers were established throughout the country.

“It is a fact that we have a lot of relevant experience … and that we’ve learned many lessons that we could share,” said Goran Cerkez, the assistant health minister in the larger of Bosnia’s two highly autonomous regions.

Cerkez, who led a post-war effort to reform Bosnia’s mental health care system, noted that people from the neighboring nations of Serbia and Croatia — also born from the bloody breakup of ex-Yugoslavia — have been calling Bosnian hotlines set up to help people deal with pandemic-related stress.

Based on his experiences, he expects the psychological impact of the coronavirus pandemic, both in his country and globally, to be longer and more severe than its immediate medical impact.

“Many (collective) traumatic experiences have some things in common,” Cerkez said. “They produce a sense of hopelessness and insecurity, a sense of uncertainty because it is impossible to predict how long they will last.”

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Dr Norman Swan opens up on coping with trauma after his daughter’s accident, covering COVID and the question that ‘stopped his world’

It’s an image that’s haunted Dr Norman Swan for years.

Bicycle helmets hanging on a wall in a shop in Italy where he hired a couple of bikes during a family holiday in 2016.

His then wife was seriously ill with heart disease and couldn’t walk far, so they’d decided to hire bikes, including an electric one, for the short trip across a carpark to the beach.

“I remember looking at the helmets on the wall thinking ‘should I get a helmet?'” recalls Swan.

“But I thought ‘we’re not going on the open road, we’re just going through a carpark’, but I should have got a helmet.

“In the months and years following, the recurrent vision for me was those helmets on the wall.”

Swan with his daughter, Anna, and her husband, Mark.(Supplied: Dr Norman Swan)

Swan’s adult daughter, Anna, had been keen to try out the electric bike with her husband Mark and headed up a hill safely away from traffic, but on the way down she lost control and slammed into a wall at 60 kilometres an hour.

Swan didn’t witness the accident but was on the scene soon after as the ambulance arrived.

“It was appalling,” he says.

“She looked terrible, she did look as if she was going to die there and then and we had no idea what was going to happen.

“She suffered major head injuries and other injuries to her body, was in a coma for three weeks and was in hospital for seven and a half months.”

Four years on, Anna has made a remarkable recovery and while she reassures him he’s not to blame, Swan says the accident traumatised him and he’s experienced mild PTSD that he’s only now starting to get over.

The Scottish-born physician and journalist’s entire career has been focussed on educating the public about health and he’s keen to share his personal experience of dealing with trauma in the hope it might help others confronting a crisis.

“There’s nothing shameful about it if you do feel overwhelmed but some people think that if you hold it in to cope with it, it’s a bad thing for you psychologically, that you should let it out, but in fact there’s no evidence for that and there’s a lot of evidence that if you manage to keep your so-called shit wired tight it’s a good thing for you and everybody around you.

“Later that day, I phoned a very close friend of mine in Glasgow who is a Professor of Psychology to tell her about the accident and she reminded me of that same phrase.

“The time for talking is later and intuitively that’s what I did and it’s actually what most people do in a crisis.

“They cope, and they cope well.

“Some people are left with trauma and if that trauma interferes with their life they need to ask for help, with no fear of stigma, but in the moment of the crisis most people keep their shit wired tight and it’s good advice in a crisis.”

The coronavirus question that stopped Swan’s world

It could be an appropriate slogan for 2020, which has felt, for many of us, like an unrelenting, year-long crisis.

Throughout, Dr Norman Swan has been the face of the ABC’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic across multiple programs and platforms — The Health Report on RN, that he’s produced and presented for 25 years, ABC News, 7.30, local radio and the daily Coronacast podcast (the brainchild of ABC News Audio Current Affairs head Tanya Nolan, co-hosted by health journalist Tegan Taylor, who, like Swan, is based in the ABC Science unit, and produced by Will Ockenden).

It’s been hugely popular — becoming the biggest ABC digital-first podcast — and fielded thousands of questions from the public.

On air, Swan has tried to be a calm, reassuring voice during frightening and unpredictable times but questions from children, and in particular an eight-year-old boy on Melbourne radio, have rocked him.

“My world stopped at that point, realising what impact this was having on kids and what was happening in their imaginary worlds that they probably weren’t sharing with their parents,” he says.

“When you’re on air answering questions, you’re hyped up and things are moving fast but suddenly the only thing that mattered was this little boy.

“I found out a bit more about him, and I said, ‘Well, here’s the story, Huck, you and your sister are going to be fine because if kids get it they don’t get it badly, and your mum and dad are going to be fine too, because they’re pretty young.

“Your grandma and grandpa might be the ones who could be at risk and you have just got to be really careful with them and you may not be able to visit them quite as much, but as long as they stay at home and look after themselves, they’ll be fine too.

“So, it’s the questions from kids that stay with me.”

In an attempt to help kids through it, Swan encouraged them to express their fears through art and got the idea which ended up being the Together In Art Kids project with the Art Gallery of NSW.

‘Sometimes it keeps me up at night’

You could say this is the story he’s waited his whole career for, having long had an interest in new diseases and pandemics.

Black and white photo of a young Swan with a beard and wearing glasses.
A qualified doctor, Swan worked in paediatrics before moving into journalism and joined the ABC in 1982.(ABC archives)

In the early 90s, as the world grappled with the HIV epidemic, Swan produced a four-part internationally broadcast TV series, variously called ‘Plagued’ and ‘Invisible Enemies’, investigating the very scenario we are dealing with now.

“I was inadvertently prepared for COVID-19,” he says.

“I’ve always been interested in pandemics, where they come from, how they arise, and the key feature which really fascinates me is that the biology of the bug is the least of it.

“Everyone gets really obsessed with the biology of the bug because they want to know if they are infected, they want to know the reproduction number and the mortality rate.

“All those things are really important, but what’s far more important is how it’s been caused and how we can solve it.

“There’s never been a pandemic which hasn’t exploited a change in the way we live — politics, social structure, technological change, warfare, it’s always something that we humans have done or are doing that’s tilled the soil for the pandemic and the solution to it is usually social, behavioural and political.

“COVID-19 is not the first pandemic and it won’t be the last.

“We’ve got no vaccine for HIV and we’re lucky this time that we’ve got some vaccines that are being produced but that won’t always be the case.”


It was in early January, while on holidays, that reports of a new coronavirus emerging in China first grabbed his attention and he emailed colleagues at the ABC advising them to monitor it.

In the months that followed, as cases soared, and governments and public health experts scrambled to slow the spread, the reality of what the world was facing hit home.

“I remember going out for dinner with friends knowing that a lockdown was going to happen in the next few days and I was looking around the dinner table, they’re all bright, intelligent people, and I thought ‘you poor bastards, you’ve got no idea what’s about to happen’,” Swan says.

“I have often wondered what it was like to be in the trenches during war, knowing that tomorrow morning you have got to go over the top and that you might die and what a surreal feeling, in addition to fear, that might be.

“I felt like you can’t believe this is what you’re living through.

“And I knew exactly what we were going to be living through and so did public health experts who knew what they were talking about.

A ‘treasure’ and the ‘Nation’s Daddy’


As the coronavirus crisis has unfolded, Swan’s public profile has grown significantly.

His Twitter following has soared, there’ve been social media calls for him to be the Chief Medical Officer and a flurry of concern when he revealed he was unwell and going for a COVID-19 test (which was negative).

ABC Chair Ita Buttrose called him a ‘treasure’ and the Betoota Advocate declared him the ‘Nation’s Daddy’.

Then, an amusing Coronacast question Swan answered about whether farts spread the virus captured international attention, getting a mention on a high-profile US radio show hosted by broadcaster Rush Limbaugh and also the late-night talk show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Adding to the head-spinning nature of the year, his son Jonathan Swan, a US-based journalist, made an international splash with a headline-grabbing interview with President Donald Trump that went viral and inspired a bunch of memes.


“It was another of those surreal experiences, that your wee boy is interviewing the President of the United States and it wasn’t the first time he’d done it,” he says.

“We had discussed the interview before he did it, but it was more vicarious on my part.

“And the reaction afterwards was even more surreal, really weird, but it was a similar feeling to coronavirus where you’re attached a world event and just watching it unfold before your eyes.”

Swans says he’s been surprised by all the public attention he’s attracted and it’s not something he covets.

“I try to ignore it completely,” he says.

“But I don’t take it seriously, it’s ephemeral and you’re only as good as your last broadcast.”

At times Swan has been at odds with official advice and has attracted criticism over his questioning of whether governments and public health advisers were moving fast enough in the early stages of the pandemic.

Recognising Swan’s influence, at one point a Government representative rang ABC News director Gaven Morris to ask if Swan had access to all of the latest information its own medical experts were getting.

As a result of that, Swan had phone conversation with then federal Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy.

He stands by his reporting and feels a heavy weight of responsibility in his role.

“I’ve had a long career at the ABC translating complicated information into stories that people who don’t necessarily have detailed specialist knowledge can understand,” says Swan.

“And [when the pandemic started] I and my Coronacast colleagues walked into a vacuum of knowledge, information and science and told it as it was, using evidence and using a wide range of experts and holding people to account which is what journalists do, that’s our responsibility to Australians.

“You don’t abuse that trust.

“We’ve made a few mistakes but always corrected our errors very quickly.

“I learnt early on that what I said was having an impact when a friend getting physiotherapy said hydrotherapy sessions had been stopped and they were blaming me because I’d told people not to go to swimming pools, which I never said, it had been taken out of context.

“I’ve had this feeling before when I’ve done investigative stories, you always worry about what have you got wrong?

“And most investigative journalists would say that’s what keeps them up at night.

“When I’m out there and I’m one of the few people saying what I’m saying, even though I’m confident of the data, I’m confident in the information or the expert, you can’t help but be a bit rattled but you’ve just got to calm yourself down and get on with it.”

How Norman Swirsky became a Swan

Dr Norman Swan was born Norman Swirsky in Glasgow, Scotland in 1953.

His Jewish grandparents had fled pogroms in Russia and settled in the slum area of Glasgow.

Black and white photo of two parents and three children.
A defining moment of Swan’s childhood was the collapse of his father’s business which left him with a lifelong fear of losing everything.(Supplied: Dr Norman Swan)

Swan recalls experiencing some anti-Semitism during his childhood and a scarring experience was his family being plunged into poverty when the business his father and grandfather ran went bankrupt.

“My grandfather and my father had a second-hand car yard and garage and a lot of their customers were Jewish.

“This was the post-war years in Glasgow and my grandfather’s name was Sam Swirsky and he called it SS Motors!

“That’s how ‘good’ my grandfather and father were as marketers.

“Needless to say they went bankrupt and we lived in poverty for quite some time.

“My father couldn’t get work and decided to change his name to Swan and got a job the next week — maybe, it was a coincidence, I don’t know.

“But it had a huge impact on me and I’ve always had a fear of losing everything.”

Black and white photo of Swan in dramatic costume.
Swan is passionate about theatre and was keen on pursuing a career in acting.(Supplied: Dr Norman Swan)

He wanted to be an actor, but that career choice wouldn’t fly with a Jewish mother keen to see her son be a doctor.

Swan studied medicine while acting and directing at university.

The stage continued to beckon until an audition with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art went so badly — “embarrassing and amateurish because I forgot my lines” is how he remembers it — that he surrendered the dream.

He trained in paediatrics, but a kind of mid-life crisis in his 20s propelled Swan to Australia, where he worked at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Sydney.

Still unsettled, he took some time off to write articles about health and just as he was about to return to full-time medicine in 1982 he saw a newspaper ad for a job at the ABC.

“I spent a lot of time, a week actually, writing the application and I ended up getting it, to my amazement.”

Exposing a scientific scandal

As well as presenting and producing health programs, Swan also ran Radio National for three years in the 1990s — transforming the network, creating RN Breakfast and Life Matters, strengthening Arts coverage and hiring broadcasters Phillip Adams and Geraldine Doogue to boost the audience.

Over four decades, Swan has won numerous awards — three Walkleys, including journalism’s highest honour, the Gold Walkley, two Michael Daly awards for Science Journalism and in 2004 he was awarded the prestigious Medal of the Australian Academy of Science.

Black and white photo of Swan and Doogue.
Swan recruited broadcaster Geraldine Doogue to the ABC when he ran Radio National and overhauled its programming to increase its audience.(ABC archives)

The story that won him the Gold Walkley was an investigation into research conducted by Australian obstetrician William McBride, who was credited with blowing the whistle on the dangers of the drug thalidomide in the 1960s.

It led to McBride being found guilty of scientific fraud, struck off and reforms in the governance of Australian scientific research.

McBride was regarded as a national hero and Swan endured some ugly blowback.

“It took years of research to get the story up, slowly getting all the evidence together,” he says.

“It was difficult emotionally because McBride’s family would be hurt by the story, but it was an important story to tell.

Around his coronavirus coverage, Swan is currently writing a health book for millennials as a kind of “occupational therapy”.

As his “crazy, non-stop, all consuming” year comes to an end, he warns the COVID-19 story is far from finished and he’ll be reporting on it for quite a while yet.

“Where we are [in Australia] is amazing, it’s a world-beating achievement, but the risk is we become complacent.

“I think we can be optimistic, I think there will be a vaccine, if not more than one, and we should be able to keep outbreaks under control.

So, next year should be better but it may be this time next year before non-COVID normality returns because this virus is going to be with us for eternity, it’s never going to go away.”

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Eating disorders and fitness trauma affect many women. This mum wants to make a difference

Personal trainer Shreen El Masry’s group fitness sessions look like any other from afar.

But when you get closer, it’s very different from the way a lot of the other typical, early-morning boot camps operate in their local park.

For a start, everyone is laughing and having fun.

There’s also hula hooping, potato sack racing, and dancing to classic hits.

And at the centre is Shreen, beaming as she guides her clients through their next activity.

A few years after being in recovery from her eating disorder, Shreen started trying to have a baby.(Supplied)

She’s not your average PT – she’s a non-diet, body inclusive personal trainer, as well as a certified intuitive eating counsellor.

“So I help women all around the world heal their relationship to food, exercise and their body,” the 35-year-old said.

“But mostly I help women exercise from a place of fun and for nourishment and for a tool for self-care and mental health, rather than for punishment.”

Why dieting and exercise was so dangerous for Shreen

While Shreen preaches self-love and body acceptance, it took her a long time to get there herself.

The Englishwoman, who now lives in Sydney, always wished she was skinny.

A woman wearing a colourful jacket stands in front of a beach in Sydney. She is smiling.
Shreen’s turning point in life came when her counsellor warned that she’d hospitalise her under the mental health act.(Supplied)

And that dream almost ruined her life.

“But what is ironic is that when I went on the diet that led me to an eating disorder, I nearly lost all those things because I had actually achieved all those things without trying to shrink my body.”

When she was a teenager, Shreen remembers going to see There’s Something About Mary at the movies.

“I came out of the film and I just wanted to be Cameron Diaz. I remember running straight to the chemist and buying SlimFast shakes,” she said.

But she hit rock bottom when she was weight-shamed at a bridesmaids’ dress fitting 10 years ago.

It prompted her to use a calorie counting app to help track her food, and she was overexercising to maintain the weight loss.

It also coincided with her move to Australia, and it all became too much for the former music licensing manager.

“It was definitely the hardest thing that I’ve been through,” she said.

“And I never really understood eating disorders before, I didn’t know that they were a mental illness.”

How exercise healed Shreen

Shreen’s turning point came when her counsellor warned that she’d hospitalise her under the mental health act.


“I knew just there and then I had to do everything I could to get better. That’s when I really threw myself into recovery and learnt everything,” she said.

“It was a really, really hard journey, and I fell down a lot.

That experience prompted Shreen’s career change, where she adopts the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach.

It’s a movement that’s been around for a while but continues to evolve and appears to be growing in popularity.


At its core, HAES rejects the idea that weight, size, or body mass index should be used as key indicators for health.

Instead it focuses on being inclusive of a diverse range of body types, helping people improve their overall health, eating for wellbeing, and finding joy in being physically active.

In Australia, there are around 80 verified providers — mainly psychologists and dieticians.

Shreen is one of the few personal trainers.

“I’m just really passionate in changing the narrative around fitness and diet culture and showing women that their weight has nothing to do with their self-worth,” she said.

Shreen adds that a lot of the women she trains have “fitness trauma” from bad experiences in gyms which don’t necessarily cater for all body types, and where there’s a tendency to push high-intensity exercise and working up a sweat.

“When you focus on exercising from that place of weight loss, it’s a very negative relationship that you get with your body.

“Whereas when you’re focusing on engaging in exercise as a tool for self-care, and something that’s fun and nourishing, you’re more likely going to stick to it and have a much more positive relationship to it.”

How diet and exercise can affect fertility, too

Shreen is also open about sharing her fertility struggles to help educate other women who may have fallen into the same trap of extreme dieting and exercising.

A few years after being in recovery from her eating disorder, she started trying to have a baby.

She came off the pill, but her period didn’t return.

She eventually discovered she had a condition called hypothalamic amenorrhea.

“And that basically means I’ve lost my periods due to years of dieting, overexercise, stress. And I had no idea, I’d never even heard of this condition. My doctor didn’t even pick up on it before,” she said.

“Even though I thought I was recovered, I clearly wasn’t because I was still engaging in a lot of exercise because it was so normalised.”

She had to stop all high-intensity cardio and gain a significant amount of weight.

After two years of trying, she became pregnant with son Bryn, and finally completed her recovery journey.

“That’s where I really learned about body acceptance and found this community,” she said.

“[I] just came to a place of peace with my body that I’ve never, ever experienced before.”

If you need support with an eating disorder or body image issues, contact the Butterfly Foundation’s National Helpline 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or

This story is part of a women in sport series called In Her Words. Head over to ABC iView to watch all episodes.

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As children they went to boarding school. As adults they’re still dealing with the trauma

Christine Jack has horrible memories from her time at boarding school.

When she was seven, she was sent away from home to a Catholic establishment in New South Wales.

“I was a little child and it was a shock to go into a very strict regime … it was virtually an enclosed convent,” she tells ABC RN’s Sunday Extra.

“I used to go to the toilet and cry for my mother and father.”

She made friends, but still felt isolated, and had to learn to cope on her own. The attachment bonds with her parents started to tear.

It didn’t get easier as she got older.

Black and white photograph of a young child in Kerever Park.
Christine says she became “a mess” as the years passed.(Supplied: Christine Jack)

In secondary school, Christine says she suffered “profound” emotional abuse.

“By the time I was 14, I was such a mess, and I became more and more difficult because I found it more traumatic. I went into a fantasy world — that’s how I coped,” she says.

“The nuns noted that I was absent, and they saw it as something to be disciplined.”

She was put in what was called “solitary confinement”. She wasn’t allowed to have contact with other students or go to classes.

“You had to eat on your own and get up and go to bed at different times. And you just had to wait until they came and got you. I wasn’t the only person it happened to,” she says.

“You’d stay there and after about three days you’d come out and say to the principal, ‘I’m really sorry.’ I never knew what I was responsible for.”

Eventually, the school nurse intervened, and raised concerns with the head nun about Christine’s mental health.

“The nun told the parents that I should go home, that I was a clever girl and that I wasn’t doing well there. So my parents took me home and that’s how I left at the end of year nine,” Christine says.

“I was a mess.”

A lingering trauma

It’s been decades since Christine was at boarding school, back in the 1950s and 60s.

Yet she still feels a deep trauma from her time there — and she’s far from alone.

Now an educational historian and researcher at Charles Sturt University, she’s published the first book on boarding school trauma in Australia, incorporating her own personal experiences and a growing body of research from the UK.

Portrait of a mature-aged woman wearing a colourful necklace and black top.
Christine says many adults don’t realise they’re affected by boarding school trauma until they read about it.(Supplied: Christine Jack)

“I can only use the research that’s coming out of the UK, because it hasn’t been done here,” she says.

Christine believes boarding school trauma is widespread in Australia, and says often people don’t realise they’re affected until they read or hear about it as adults.

“It wasn’t traumatic for all children,” she adds.

“Wouldn’t it be appalling if it was traumatic for all.”

Thurstine Basset is also a former boarder who has immersed himself in researching trauma.

The mental health training consultant and author went to boarding schools in England from the ages of eight to 18.

Mature-aged man wearing thick black framed glasses and a cap.
Looking back, Thurstine says that he was far too young to go away from his family.(Supplied:)

He says there’s been an evolving interest in the trauma in the UK, “partly based on increased referrals of ex-boarders for therapy”, but also because of high-profile former boarders in government — like David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

“It might be thought that as boarding schools have become less violent with practices such as caning abandoned there would be less need for therapeutic help for ex-boarders, but this has not been the case,” he says.

“The breaking of attachments with one’s family that is required to go to a boarding school are still as potentially wounding today [as] they were in days gone by.”

Looking back, Thurstine says that he was far too young to go away from his family.

“The initial separation is a terrible shock, but you soon learn not to cry or complain,” he says.

“I learned to grow up quickly with my headmaster reporting to my parents after my first two terms that my behaviour was ‘pestilent’, and that in a third term I must learn to ‘put away these childish ways’.

Thurstine only fully realised the impact of his experience when he attended a Boarding School Survivor Workshop in London in his 50s.

He’s now a former director of an organisation called Boarding Concern that supports former boarders, and has co-authored a guide for psychotherapists and counsellors who work with survivors.

He says one of the most common long-term symptoms of boarding school trauma is “emotional absence”.

“Cognitively, they may be razor sharp, but emotionally, they can be rank beginners,” he says.

“Inevitably, an inability to deal with anything emotional makes the business of intimate relationships a veritable minefield for ex-boarders.”

‘Doom, dread and fear’

Kathy, who asked for her surname to be withheld, has also deliberated over the long-term impacts of boarding school trauma.

“What I’d say is, I don’t have children, and I don’t know, maybe that’s a long-term impact of it,” she says.

“But as an adult now, I look at my friend’s kids around the age of 11 or 12 and I think ‘Oh my God, I just can’t imagine sending off some poor little thing to fend for themselves at that age.'”

Kathy, from Victoria, was sent to a Catholic girls boarding school at the age 11, following in the footsteps of her parents.

“I remember the holidays leading up to when I went off — it was just this impending sense of doom, dread and fear,” she says.

Anonymous photo of a young girl wearing a back pack in a school lunch room.
Kathy says she wants more consideration given into the long-term impacts of boarding school trauma.(Getty: SDI Productions)

Kathy turned to comfort food in her first year at boarding school.

“I gained a lot of weight, and ever since then I struggled with weight, food and eating disorders,” she says.

“I struggle with a lot of mental health issues like anxiety and depression and I’m on medication. I’ve been in therapy a long time, and I have no doubt that whole experience just triggered all of these issues.

“It was all good intentions, but I was a highly sensitive child, quiet, introverted, and so it was just a violent experience for me. Not in a sense that I was physically attacked, just in the fact that it was such a huge shock and wasn’t really the right thing for my temperament.”

She also feels incredibly guilty because she’s experienced trauma.

“I’ve felt, ‘Oh, poor me. I got sent to boarding school.’ It’s a first-world problem,” she says.

“It’s all good intentions, but I think parents, educators and institutions don’t really stop and think about what this situation, and the change it is going to have on people’s personalities and developments.”

When home is not a happy place

In her 20s, Christine returned to her former boarding school.

“I went to see the reverend of my primary school, and the first thing she said was, ‘Will you ever forgive me for the sins that I did to you?'” she recalls.

“I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my God, maybe it wasn’t me, maybe it was them.'”

Her grief and anger came to a head shortly after, and a lot of it was directed toward her parents.

“My poor parents, who thought they were doing the right thing,” Christine says.

She acknowledges that boarding school isn’t traumatic for everyone.

“Sometimes children, if they go into secondary school, if they’re resilient children, they cope quite well and make friends,” she says.

“They know their parents haven’t abandoned them and they know why they’ve been sent.

“For some, it’s a better alternative to home. Home is not a happy place.”

That was the experience of one Sunday Extra listener, who wrote in to say:

“I loved boarding school. It was a safe haven from a very unhappy abusive home. I had more freedom at Catholic girls boarding school than home!”

Another noted:

“I had a great experience in a co-ed boarding school but I was confident, good at sport and did not miss my parents — for the opposite, it’s tough and can be unrelenting.”

But Christine says for everyone who has a fond memory, there’s another with a negative memory: of feeling intense homesickness, grieving after being separated from family, being bullied or struggling to make friends.

“Think about what it was like for them … think if you had to put up with it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Christine says.

“At least if you’re in a day school you get to go home to a mum and dad who care about you, or you’ve got your family dog, pet, or bedroom.

“You’ve got nothing, and you have to live with that all the time.

“So, for people who say ‘Oh, but boarding school was terrific,’ I think, ‘It was terrific for you, but it probably wasn’t terrific for everybody.'”

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Robert Muir responds to ‘overwhelming reaction’ after revealing story of racism and trauma

Former St Kilda player Robert Muir has responded to the “overwhelming reaction” he received after he spoke out about the racism and trauma he suffered during his career.

The full extent of the racist abuse Muir endured throughout his career was revealed by the ABC on Sunday, prompting an official acknowledgement and apology from both St Kilda and the AFL.

Muir played 68 games for St Kilda in the VFL in the 1970s and 80s, and was the victim of persistent and systemic racism.

He said he received little to no support from his club, his teammates or the league.

Since his playing career, Muir has experienced significant hardships, including being homeless for long periods, while also making several attempts on his own life.

In a statement today, he said he had been overwhelmed by the reaction to his story, and wanted to thank all those who had sent him kind wishes.

The weekend before his last senior St Kilda game, Muir responded to racial abuse from Geelong senior players.(Supplied: Inside Football)

“I appreciate it greatly, because for most of my life people have not understood the difficulties I’ve faced because of racism and trauma,” he said.

On Monday, the SANFL and Woodville-West Torrens Football Club also offered apologies to Muir, with a SANFL statement also acknowledging his would not have been an isolated case.

A trading card of Robert Muir from 1977.
The AFL and St Kilda Football Club have issued apologies to Muir.(Supplied)

“We are sincerely sorry to all those SANFL players who have endured racial vilification,” the league said.

A number of AFL clubs also acknowledged the issue, including the Collingwood Football Club, which apologised to Muir for the racist abuse he endured.

Muir said the recognition had made him feel more valued, but that he now needed space and time deal with the fallout.

“My first priorities are my family and my mental health. I ask that people respect my privacy, and avoid making personal contact for now.”

‘All we ask for in return is respect’

Muir said he had received many messages from former teammates and opponents, and had plans to reconnect with them in time.

“Although I have suffered greatly because of my involvement in the game, my love for football and for St Kilda remains,” he said.

“But for now, I’d like to relax and get back to normal for a while.

“I’m also pleased that the many brilliant Indigenous footballers currently playing the game are finally getting the support they require,” he added.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have made a huge contribution to AFL football. All we ask for in return is respect.”

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COVID-19 closure leaves NSW-Queensland border residents suffering ‘grief and trauma’

Painter Leah Bartholomew has always loved making art, but she never thought 2020 would be the year she had to choose between her work and her home.

Ms Bartholomew lives in Coolangatta, just over the Queensland border from New South Wales but her work studio is a 40 minute drive south in Byron Bay, which is outside the “border bubble” zone.

Currently, border residents are only able to move freely between NSW and Queensland if they stay within the designated border zone postcodes.

Ms Bartholomew said since the Queensland Government implemented a hard border shutdown last weekend, she has made the tough decision to live permanently at her work place.

“It means I can’t see my family members who live in Queensland,” she said.

“I also have no idea when I’m going to get back home again.

Moving closer to work

Father of three and construction business owner Corey Hobbins said he is also planning on leaving his Gold Coast home to live in northern New South Wales so he can continue to earn an income for his family.

Gold Coast resident Corey Hobbins is moving into a caravan across the border so he can continue to work.(ABC News: Gemma Sapwell)

“We’ve got jobs all the way down to Lismore, Alstonville, Goonellabah that we effectively can’t service at the moment unless I move south of the bubble,” he said.

“I’ll take our caravan and move down into northern New South Wales and I plan on not coming home until the borders are open.”

Mr Hobbins he is worried about the affect the move it will have on his children.

“They will miss their dad, they won’t be able to have a cuddle every night when I get home from work, it’s not going to have the greatest effect on them,” he said.

Border communities suffering ‘trauma’

Gold Coast-based clinical psychologist, Melissa Taitimu, said some of her border community clients are suffering distress due to the upheaval of their daily lives and the ongoing uncertainty around border closures.

“Often people talk about stress and anxiety but I don’t think that quite cuts it, I think it’s not forceful enough for what people are going through,” Dr Taitimu said.

“The border closures have completely altered the rhythm of people’s daily life and people are finding it difficult to find ways to cope, they’re in a hyper-vigilant stress state.”

Families at breaking point

Being in a constant state of stress is something mother of three Elizabeth Sayer can relate to.

She lives with her husband and three children in Bilambil in northern New South Wales.

Both she and her husband work in Queensland, and her two eldest children also attend school there.

Clay Slayer stands with his wife Elizabeth and their three children, Poppie, Macy and Louie.
Elizabeth and Clay Sayer live in NSW but work in QLD and their children also go to school across the border.(ABC News: Gemma Sapwell)

The family travels across the border multiple times a day, and over the past five months, long traffic delays at border checkpoints and constantly changing permit requirements have taken a toll on the family.

“I’m at breaking point,” she said.

“One of my daughters is not normally an anxious child at all — and now we notice she has got anxiety, she’s always stressing about getting to school on time.”

A sign at the Coolangatta border reads 'Road Closed ahead, police control ahead'.
Road closures and border checkpoints between Tweed Heads and the Gold Coast have meant lengthy delays for motorists in recent months.(ABC News: Gemma Sapwell)

After an incident where her six-year-old daughter suffered a serious medical episode at school, and border traffic meant she was unable to meet the ambulance in Queensland, Ms Sayer said her family has started looking at rentals in Queensland.

“A lot of the girls I work with, they’re in Queensland, so they’ve offered us to move in with them which is lovely, but we’re a family of five so that’s a last resort,” she said.

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CEO Update: Trauma, community-led recovery and hope

Earlier this week at our Mini Members Policy Forum we had the chance to hear from Dr Rob Gordon, a previous colleague and clinical psychologist who consults on emergency recovery for the Red Cross and Victorian Department of Health. You can view Rob’s presentation here.

Rob has spent more than 35 years working with people affected by disasters and dealing with trauma, and in recent months has been a crucial part of the recovery planning and delivery following our disastrous Black Summer and then the impacts of it colliding with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Based on research, clinical experience and the narrative of those living through trauma, Rob’s compassionate and wise analysis of what lies ahead for those with ‘bushfire brain’ reminded us all that the road ahead will be long and slow, and that there’s no fast way to recover and move forward from trauma and loss.

So less than six months out from the next fire season, and knowing what we know from experts like Rob and previous disasters, what will change? What have we learned that can benefit our communities? And what does the road ahead look like for those who are still facing the challenges of recovery?

At this week’s Senate Inquiry into lessons to be learned in relation to the Australian bushfire season 2019-2020 I had the opportunity to give evidence on how mental health and wellbeing is intrinsically related to physical wellbeing and safety. That during the recent bushfire season, thousands of Australians struggled to meet their basic needs, due to restricted access to shelter, food, drinkable water and breathable air.

For many, this was also compounded by experiences of loss. A very real risk of loss of life, loss of security, employment, property, and access to social support. But ultimately a loss and traumatic change to future plans, hopes and dreams.

Pleasingly the impacts on mental health and wellbeing were rightly acknowledged both by governments and the media and this acknowledgement represents a significant shift towards reduced stigma and increasing understanding of mental health. It also goes a long way to promote help seeking.

In our Submission to Senate Inquiry we also acknowledged and celebrate the strength of local communities. Through local community and government crisis responses, many fire-affected communities throughout Australia are now in the process of having their physiological needs met. As these immediate post-disaster needs are met, we must proactively support the mental health and wellbeing recovery of communities as they recover from the last bushfire season, struggle with the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, and prepare for the next bushfire season.

At Mental Health Australia we are also particularly concerned for the vulnerable populations who continue to bear the brunt of these impacts as Australia continues to feel the effects of climate change. Regional, rural and remote communities are disproportionately affected by bushfires and people living in these communities with severe and enduring mental illness are a particularly vulnerable group in this sense.

Sadly, much like the fires, the ramifications of COVID-19 will continue to be felt in the years to come, and it is a long road ahead with many twists and turns. To navigate it the best we can, it is critical that all policy responses are cognisant of the compounding traumatic experiences these communities have experienced. Dr Rob Gordon reminded us to focus on building communities that create belonging, strengthen social connections with individuals, and provide a context for sharing the recovery experience through narrative.

At the Senate Inquiry we discussed the need to build real and lasting communities, whether it is localised by geography, or as young people do it – through online virtual communities.

These community connections will provide balance and build hope, in a future that otherwise risks being overwhelmed by uncertainty and anxiety.    

Have a good weekend.

Leanne Beagley

Mental Health Australia has this week welcomed the Government’s announcement and release of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. Mental Health Australia CEO Dr Leanne Beagley says the new target areas will go a long way to increasing the focus on some of the social determinants that support the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Read our full release

Congratulations to Dr Cathy Kezelman and Dr Pam Stavropoulos from the Blue Knot Foundation on your well-deserved award from the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Dr Kezelman and Dr Stavropoulos won the 2020 Pierre Janet Writing Award for the Blue Knot ‘Practice Guidelines for Clinical Treatment and Complex Trauma.’

You can read the guidelines here

On Monday and right through the week I’ve again scheduled a number of calls with leaders in our Member organisations one-on-one which has been an invaluable process and something I hope to repeat every 6 months.

On Tuesday the Mental Health Australia Board will meet and we’re looking to discussing our future strategic planning and direction for the organisation, while on Wednesday I’ll be taking part in a Governance and Commissioning Roundtable meeting as part of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

Also on Wednesday I’ll be meeting with some leading providers in aged persons’ mental health and later with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

While on Friday I’m looking forward to meeting with Martin Hoffman, CEO at the NDIA to discuss shared efforts in psychosocial service delivery.

The Framework for Mental Health in Multicultural Australia (the Framework) is a free, nationally available online resource which allows organisations and individual practitioners to evaluate and enhance their cultural responsiveness. It has been mapped against national standards to help you meet your existing requirements, with access to a wide range of support and resources. 

We are pleased to invite you to the third of a four-part webinar series in August 2020. The webinar will provide an in-depth look into Service Module 3 of the Framework: Working Together to Promote Mental Health in Multicultural Communities. This module explores effective engagement with multicultural communities and stakeholders, in addition to mental health promotion and suicide prevention in a multicultural context.


  • When: Wednesday 5 August 2020
  • VIC, NSW, ACT, TAS & QLD: 2:00 pm
  • SA & NT: 1:30 pm
  • WA: 12:00 pm

Register here

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) has applauded this week’s announcement on the Close the Gap agreement and its historic commitment to reducing the incarceration, domestic violence and suicide rates in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

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Shadow Minister for Health, Chris Bowen, says Thursday 30 July marked one month since the Morrison Government received the final Productivity Commission report on mental health. The report was handed to the Government on 30 June, and gives Australia a chance to reform policy across education, housing, the workplace and the justice and health systems to address better mental health for Australians.

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This week Mission Australia released their report Staying home: A Youth Survey report on young people’s experience of homelessness. About 25,000 young people aged between 15 and 19 participated in Mission Australia’s Youth Survey 2019. 

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The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has thanked the many Australians who have already shared their stories and experiences. As at 30 June, the Royal Commission has received 1141 submissions: 47 per cent have been from people with disability, 41 per cent have been from family members, and 16 per cent have been from advocates or paid support workers. 

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The Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Psychological Service, expected to launch in September, will support those who find it difficult to use mainstream mental health services because of language and cultural barriers. 

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Australian Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games athletes are joining the fight to help reduce rates of mental health issues in young Australians as part of a new community partnership between the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and Black Dog Institute. 

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Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme(NDIS), Stuart Robert, has announced temporary changes to funding arrangements to allow NDIS participants in Victoria and New South Wales to claim the cost of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks. 

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Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, says 121 Men’s Sheds across Australia will share in $500,000 in the latest funding round of the National Shed Development Programme.

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The Australian BPD Foundation vision is to encourage a positive culture around Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and the ready availability and accessibility of appropriate services for people with BPD and those that care for them. The mission of the foundation is to promote a positive culture to support the recovery journey of people with BPD and their families/carers. The Foundation also supports clinicians, health care personnel and researchers working in this field and acknowledges everyone who works towards a better recognition of BPD.

Bipolar Australia is a national not-for-profit organisation representing everyone affected by bipolar disorder, including people with the condition, carers, friends and professionals who help them all.
Mission: Recovery is possible for every Australian affected by bipolar disorder, when they are empowered to help themselves and others through person-to-person centred communication. Vision: To be a national peak organisation with the capacity to set the agenda regarding the treatment and management of bipolar disorder across Australia, and to foster recovery for every Australian affected by the condition, regardless of their cultural heritage, educational attainment or socio-economic status. Values: Respect; Empowerment; Recognition of lived experience; Encouragement self responsibility; Enablement of choices; Bipolar is recognisable, treatable and manageable; recovery is possible.

SuperFriend advocates for, equips and empowers profit-to-member superannuation funds and insurers to achieve mentally healthy workplaces for their staff and members. Can you imagine an Australia where all workplaces are mentally healthy? That’s SuperFriend’s vision. Pure and simple. They are the only mental health organisation partnering with profit-to-member super funds and group life insurers to provide tailored solutions for this sector, its employers and members. They also work directly with Australian businesses of all shapes and sizes. With their in-depth knowledge and unique focus, these strong partnerships give SuperFriend the potential to embed mental health and wellbeing best practices into 750,000 workplaces and impact more than half of Australia’s workforce through our solutions.

WellMob brings together online resources made by and for First Peoples. It includes websites, apps, podcasts, videos, helplines, social media and online programs focusing on social and emotional wellbeing. WellMob is for all frontline health and wellbeing workers, including: community health and wellbeing workers, mental health workers, family support and education and youth services.

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Occupational Therapy Australia are pleased to announce that registration is now open for the OT Mental Health Forum. To find out more about face to face and online registration inclusions and pricing visit the website here. Register before Wednesday 9 September to receive the discounted early bird rates.

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Please join on 27 August 2020 at 11:00 AM AEST for a one-hour live webinar. The sixth Embracing Change webinar focuses on behaviour support under the NDIS. This webinar will be guided by the requirements of the Specialist Behaviour Support Module and the Implementing Behaviour Support Plans Module of the NDIS Practice Standards together with The Positive Behaviour Support Capability Framework.

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Do you or someone you know provide unpaid care and support to a family member or a friend? There are over 235,500 unpaid young carers aged 25 years and under in Australia, so there’s a good chance that we all know a young carer. Young Carer Bursaries support young carers to return to, or continue with, their education. There are 1,000 bursaries to the value of $3,000 available each year. Young carers across Australia can apply from 28th July until 8th September.

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FearLess are pleased to be joined by Wendy Coombe Founder, Animal Therapies Ltd and a fantastic panel of industry practitioners who will discuss:

  • How equine-assisted therapy can help those with PTSD

  • Understanding Animal-Assisted Play Therapy for children with PTSD

  • How assistance animals can help those suffering PTSD better access public life

  • How to incorporate animals into a trauma recovery plan panel discussion.

Details: Wednesday 12 August 2020, 5pm – 6pm.

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Women & Leadership Australia (WLA) has launched a brand new networking and learning hub called WLA Connect. The platform is designed for women to gather, network, share and learn about being a female leader in today’s working environment. Members are able to access events, learning materials and forums where they can collaborate with women from the health care sector and beyond. This is an important developmental initiative for women across the country.

Features of WLA Connect include:

  • A curated learning laboratory filled with leadership development content

  • Expert masterclasses on leadership theory and practice

  • Face-to-face and online networking events

  • Member led contributions and recommendations

  • Peer coaching, executive coaching and mentoring opportunities. 

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The Mental Health Coordinating Council is pleased to release its Guide to Culturally Safe Practice when working with Australia’s First Nations People. It is a valuable addition to resources at a time when First Nations people in Australia are highlighting the need to take action to end discrimination and improve access to services.

The Guide is a useful tool for promoting equitable and effective community support, and helps organisations embed a practice approach that is culturally appropriate and assist workers to engage respectfully with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Guide has been developed to assist organisations supporting Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people foster respectful, collaborative meaningful relationships. The handy two-page guide highlights the importance of acknowledging history, listening and communicating thoughtfully, to create welcoming environments and help breakdown barriers to service engagement.

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  • Child Family Community Australia (CFCA), Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS)

  • Words Matter: Getting the Language of Child Mental Health Right

  • 12 August 2020, 1.00pm-2.00pm

  • Online

  • Cost: Free

This webinar is the first of a two-part series exploring the importance of language in advancing child mental health. Building on a past CFCA webinar that focused on diagnosis in child mental health, this webinar will:

  • explore how parents’ mental health literacy affects how they access support for their children

  • consider the risks and benefits of applying diagnostic labels to children

  • propose a way forward for talking about child mental health.

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Understanding and Addressing Trauma and Violence in HIV Prevention and Treatment


Sponsored by:

Center for Global Mental Health Research, NIMH Division of AIDS Research

Exposure to trauma and violence are associated with higher rates of HIV infection, as well as poorer HIV treatment outcomes. To date, there are few evidence-based interventions that address trauma or violence that have been shown to improve either HIV prevention or treatment outcomes. This webinar will focus on different intervention approaches that the speakers have utilized to address this gap in the literature. Presentations will be followed by a moderated discussion and a question and answer session.


  • Laura K. Murray, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • Conall O’Cleirigh, Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School
  • Linnet Ongeri, MBChB, M.Med (Psych), Kenya Medical Research Institute
  • Susan M. Meffert, M.D., M.P.H., University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine
  • Teri Senn, Ph.D., National Institute of Mental Health

About the Webinar Series:

The National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH) 2020 Global Mental Health Research webinar series is designed for investigators conducting or interested in conducting research on global mental health. The webinars are appropriate for new and early-stage investigators, established researchers, graduate students, policy makers, clinicians, and anyone interested in learning more about conducting research on mental health disparities and global mental health with support from NIMH and the National Institutes of Health.


Registration is required at

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