Biology isn’t destiny: healing is possible

As our country grapples with a mental health crisis, there’s been much interest of late in intergenerational trauma—the idea that the effects of a traumatic event can be passed down through generations by both genetics and environmental factors like learned behaviors.

This field is known as “epigenetics,” or the study of how one’s environment, experiences, and behaviors—including traumatic events and trauma responses—can cause changes that affect the way their genes work. Genetic trauma can impact both physical and mental health.

A recent—and growing—body of research shows that trauma and one’s response to it can be passed down genetically.

This PsychCentral article references a handful of studies, including research on twins that suggests some aspects of trauma may be inherited and a study indicating that trauma possibly impacts DNA and gene function. Most notably, a 2015 study of Holocaust survivors for the first time showed how exposure to trauma prior to conception can have an effect on offspring.

In that study, researchers compared the blood samples of Holocaust survivors with those of Jewish people living outside of Europe during World War II. Through molecular analysis researchers discovered that mothers who were exposed to the Holocaust showed changes in the activity of a segment of DNA that is involved in regulating stress responses. The children of these survivors, who were not directly exposed to the events of the Holocaust, also showed these changes. Subjects in the control group did not experience such changes.

The researchers have since replicated their study.

But biology isn’t destiny, as the (scientifically proven) saying goes. While genetics certainly shape our lives and identities, our brains can change as we learn new skills and absorb new information, thus enabling us to heal from trauma. Environmental factors can also aid in healing and building resilience — PsychCentral recommends engaging with “positive surroundings healthy relationships where your needs can be met. There’s a good chance these efforts might impact your future children.”

Indeed, healing is possible. We see it everyday in GPS groups. That’s because the GPS model of group peer support is accessible, evidence-based, and trauma-informed. It incorporates mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, peer-to-peer support, psychosocial education, and other evidence-based modalities. GPS groups are deliberately judgment and advice-free zones where people can be listened to with respect. Our support groups provide a place for participants to address challenging situations, have courageous conversations, receive support in times of crisis and tragedy, discuss environmental stressors such as racism, and build resilience against burnout and workplace fatigue, among other benefits. Participants heal, find their strength and connect with their courage to take conscious steps to create the lives they want to live.

Learn more about GPS support groups or register for a group here:

Group-based mental wellness support on campus

It’s no secret that there is a mental health crisis on college campuses across the U.S. fueled, in part, by lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, students report experiencing high rates of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

The consequences of this crisis were laid out in painful detail in a recent New York Times Magazine article on the experience of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), where seven students died—six of them by suicide—in a span of six months beginning in July 2021. As the WPI community struggled to care for students and manage the crisis, it fell to faculty and staff members to try and shore up student mental health, which took its toll: among faculty—especially junior members, women, and professors of color—burnout was a consistent topic of discussion.

As Assistant Professor Katherine Foo told the Times, “It was a very dark time on campus. Faculty were being asked to take on a role that I think historically we haven’t been asked to play.”

The school ultimately took a multi-pronged approach to the problem, including hiring more mental health counselors and expanding social programming for students to help them feel more connected to the campus community.

As colleges and universities grapple with how to manage the on-going crisis, group-based mental health support should be a part of the conversation.

GPS Group Peer Support (GPS) offers accessible, evidence-based, and trauma-informed mental wellness group support to individuals and communities during times of stress, challenge, and change. The GPS model incorporates mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, peer-to-peer support, psychosocial education, and other evidence-based modalities. It has been implemented in diverse populations including parents dealing with postpartum depression, residents of rural areas living with chronic conditions, people dealing with substance use disorder, refugees, survivors of war — and college students. It can be delivered by mental health clinicians or trained, non-clinical workers with relevant lived experience, including students.

In 2018, GPS launched a pilot program in partnership with Westfield State University Department of Social work. GPS trained students of social work as well as students, academic partners and professionals from the school’s TRIO program in how to facilitate the GPS model. As the pilot progressed, the GPS model was adapted to ensure that it was appropriate, well-accepted, and culturally responsive to students’ needs. Evaluation of the pilot strongly suggested that the GPS model of group-based support would be successful with students.

As one participant said, “This model really allows students to come to a safe place and feel like they’re … not alone.”

Indeed, there is a strong and growing body of research, including a groundbreaking study recently published by the American Psychological Association, demonstrating the benefits of support groups on emotional wellness, resilience, behavioral change, recovery from trauma and success with sustaining recovery from substance use, among other positive outcomes.

GPS can be an important tool for colleges and universities to support student and staff mental health. Most importantly, the model is easily scaled, so students and faculty can be easily trained and quickly begin using this effective and evidence-based approach to mental health on their campuses.