During World War II, 50,000 Finnish children were sent away from their parents to receive temporary care in Sweden. A new study constructs the case that adverse events like this in childhood can have profound psychological consequences not only for those directly affected, but also for their future generations.
Previous research has shown that many of the Finnish war children who were evacuated had a much higher psychiatric hospitalization rate than the children who stayed. The new study, conducted by the same group of researchers, reveals that once those children grew up and had children of their own, they may have transmitted part of that trauma to the next generation. Specifically, the daughters of the evacuated girls showed a higher rate of psychiatric hospitalization than the children from those who were not evacuated.
"It was not an inevitable conclusion that we would have seen these results," said Stephen Gilman, author of the new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Newsweek .
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Gilman, a US epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health, began his research on Finnish evacuated children collaborating with Torsten and Nina Santavirtas, Swedish researchers who studied records of evacuated children. In 2015, he discovered that these children had higher rates of mental illness compared to their counterparts who stayed.  Finnish war children in Stockholm, Sweden Åhlen & Åkerlund / Wikimedia Commons
" It's a really well-conducted study, "James Kirkbride, a psychiatric epidemiologist at University College London, said Newsweek . Being able to observe public records in Finland allowed researchers to compare evacuated children with other children, in some cases their cousins, who were left behind. This allowed them to be reasonably sure that the effects they were seeing were not purely random (most mental health research considers comparing siblings to the gold standard in this regard).
On the impact it had on those who were evacuated as children, there is a good deal of research that shows that interrupting parental attachment early in childhood can cause harm later on.
Dylan Gee, Yale psychologist, said Newsweek that many previous studies have shown that childhood adverse events, particularly separation from parents or other events that damage family ties, can sometimes lead to a deep psychological anguish later in life. There is even clear research on how that damage is confirmed in different parts of the brain, he said.
But, he cautions that the study does not clarify how or why the daughters of the evacuated women showed higher rates of psychiatric hospitalization. Finding out how or why some of the second-generation children of the evacuees have seemingly higher rates of mood disorders requires more studies.
"We know from epidemiology of mood disorders that there is a higher incidence of mood disorders in women than in men," Gilman said, adding that this was an effect they saw in their previous study of evacuees. , themselves. Women evacuated had a higher rate of psychiatric hospitalization than men evacuated.
Kirkbride speculated that if investigators could see similar situations with a greater number of people affected in the first place (the number of descendants of Finnish evacuees, as well as the hospitalized number, was relatively small), they could see a spreading effect to disorders beyond mood disorders.
Gee also points out that there is no single effect for all Finnish evacuated children. Some evacuees and their children were not so affected.
Finland, which officially joined Nazi Germany but fought against the Soviet Union, occupied a uniquely complicated position in World War II. The rules by which they evacuated the children were selective: some stayed, while those whose parents died in combat or whose houses were destroyed were sent to Sweden. And the experience, although traumatic for some, probably was not for others. Gee emphasized that when dealing with adverse childhood events, separate, little-known factors from the environment as they age at the time of separation to genetic or epigenetic factors can influence the outcomes for a child.
In any case, the situation of Finnish children proved to be so traumatic in some cases that it raises similar concerns for the many other children who were placed in adverse circumstances in World War II, from being moved from their homes to being sent to concentration camps. And similar effects can be seen among children living in conflict today in places like Syria, where the image of a child pulled from the rubble of a building in Aleppo briefly captured the attention of the public.
"What is the relevance of our findings to situations of armed conflict today?" Said Gilman. "That is, of course, a really challenging question to answer."
As he and his coauthors write, it is difficult to make direct comparisons due to the lack of government records documenting the current refugee crises compared to the Finnish evacuation. Program. And while Finnish children were sent to Sweden for 2 to 5 years, contemporary refugee crises have a much longer life.
While the study authors acknowledge that more research is needed to understand the effects of current situations as they unfold, he concludes he might expect "that the intergenerational consequences of war-related experiences during childhood will be even stronger nowadays".