For too many, childhood trauma is an unfortunate reality, and for even more Americans it’s part of a growing public health crisis. Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs), such as the imprisonment of a parent, divorce, or abuse of any kind are tragically common for children regardless of class, race, or where they grow up. In fact, over 60% of people will experience at least one adverse childhood event, with about 17% experiencing at least four. No longer does this just mean a difficult adulthood; according to a recent report by the CDC, the more ACEs in a child’s life, the higher their risk for severe health consequences such as coronary heart disease, depression, and obesity. As a result, the CDC recently named ACEs a public health crisis, asking community and healthcare leaders alike to prioritize childhood safety and mental health.
According to NPR, Americans who experience ACEs are at a statistically higher risk of dying from five of the top ten leading causes of death. In addition to making it difficult for children to learn healthy coping habits, ACEs also physically alter the adolescent brain. The stress ACEs put on a child’s brain can hinder development and cause lifelong impacts for critical functions such as decision-making, self-regulation, fear-processing, memory, and stress management.
With mental healthcare as a developing field, it’s important for all healthcare professionals to recognize their role in preventing or minimizing the damage ACEs can cause. Physicians owe it to their patients to monitor adults for risky behavior and children for signs of trauma. The burden of responsibility falls harder on pediatricians, who are beginning to screen both children and their parents for ACEs and signs of resilience.
Preventing childhood trauma
The CDC estimates that preventing childhood trauma could potentially prevent 1.9 million cases of coronary heart disease annually, the leading cause of death in the US. Similarly, prevention could avert 2.5 million cases of obesity and 21 million cases of depression. Further, community rallying against ACEs could keep up to 1.5 million students from dropping out of school each year, NPR reports.
Socially, there are many steps professionals of all sorts can take to reduce the occurrences of childhood trauma, says Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, author of The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. Schools and educators are working to become more trauma-sensitive, learning to differentiate between a willful or difficult child and one who demonstrates fear responses from trauma. Further, employers in every industry should create a culture which both supports a parent’s ability to support their children and promotes stress management and mental healthcare.
In addition to preventing childhood trauma, it’s important not to see traumatized children as lost causes. Positive childhood experiences and relationships buffer against the damage ACEs may create and reduce further health risks. Communities which fund programs that support its youth are undoubtedly better prepared for a healthy future than ones that don’t. Programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters have measurable impacts on self-confidence, education, and juvenile justice, all of which significantly affect a population’s health.
Until recently, Americans culturally regarded childrearing as an isolated issue and one of sole personal responsibility. However, the “none of our business” attitude which kept parents out of each other’s business has melted away in an age of social sharing and open communication, helping more people than ever to stay vigilant for signs of abuse or trauma.
Communities can also help promote healthy populations by encouraging residents to see public health threats such as substance abuse or homelessness as collective challenges rather than as an individual’s own problem. Collaborative solutions and mindsets help to facilitate the kind of positive childhood mentorships that help buffer against ACEs and create healthier populations. By better understanding a community’s health, local leaders can build a stronger future.
For information about how PRC can uncover your community’s own ACE statistics and investigate your community’s health, contact an expert today or read more on our community health research solution page.
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