May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, and I want to zero in on one this year’s celebration objectives – to raise awareness of trauma and its impacts. Specifically, I want to zero in on childhood trauma. As Paolo del Vecchio wrote in his article, “AWARENESS: Understanding the Link Between Life Experiences and Behavioral Health Could Lengthen Your Life!,” appearing on the SAMHSA’s blog May 4, childhood trauma includes:
- physical, emotional and sexual abuse;
- emotional and physical neglect;
- a parent who’s an alcoholic or addicted to other drugs;
- a mother who’s been battered;
- a family member in prison or diagnosed with mental illness; and
- a loss of a parent through divorce or abandonment.
Childhood Trauma Affects a Child’s Mental Health
The reason I’m so taken with childhood trauma is its impacts on a child’s own susceptibility to mental illness (anxiety or depression, for example, which is one of the five Key Risk factors for developing an addiction) and to a child’s decision to use and abuse a substance (to self-medicate the pain of the brain changes caused by the toxic stress of the trauma). Now that was a mouthful, to be sure, but it’s important. And to help explain why its so important, I’m sharing the following information provided on the website of the organization called ACES Too High:
Over the last 15 years, research has shown that childhood trauma injures a child’s brain. It impairs the brain’s physical development and function. You can see the effects of trauma on a brain scan. The result: These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) cause kids to have a hard time learning, making friends and trusting adults. They can’t keep up in school, so they shut down or get in fights. They’re the “problem” kids. Schools suspend them. There’s lots of ways for kids to cope with their trauma. Alcohol. Drugs. Smoking. Food. Kids become daredevils and break their bones. Sleep around and get STDs. Grow up too fast and become workaholics.
All this helps numb painful memories: Years of beatings by dad, who also walloped a kid’s siblings and mom. Enduring forced sex by an uncle who visited regularly. Being rousted out of bed at 2 a.m. by a drunk mother to be yelled at for hours. These kids’ coping “drug of choice” – smoking, drinking, food, sex, work – helps them escape from the misery of feeling like failures or that, somehow, they were responsible for the trauma they experienced. It also helps them take the edge off their feelings of isolation and abandonment when our institutions further traumatize them by suspending them from school, by putting them in dysfunctional foster homes, by restraining them or putting them in isolation. Asking them: “What’s wrong with you?” instead of “What happened to you?”
The double whammy of the toxic effects of severe stress on a developing brain and years of coping behaviors — which kids regard as solutions, not problems, even into adulthood — have long-term effects. When they’re adults, the trauma they experienced as a child reaches from the past to deal another cruel blow — chronic diseases that appear when they’re adults. Diabetes. Heart disease. Depression. Lung cancer. The list goes on. The diseases that cost our country billions of dollars economically, and an incalculable cost emotionally.
The more types of childhood trauma a person has, the more likely she or he will have a chronic disease. In other words, the higher your ACE score, the more problems you’ll have as an adult. The ACE Study, which began as a joint research project of Kaiser Permanente in San Diego and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at 10 different types of childhood trauma. These are the five usual suspects: physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; physical and emotional neglect. And five types of family dysfunction: a parent who’s an alcoholic or diagnosed mentally ill, a battered mother, a family member in prison, and a parent who disappears through abandonment or divorce.
The picture’s a bit grim:
- Only 30 percent of us have no ACEs.
- They rarely appear alone — if there’s one type of childhood trauma, there’s a 95 percent likelihood that there are others.
- They’re very common, even in predominately white, middle- to upper-middle class college-educated Americans.
To continue reading about ACEs Too High, review their sources for the information cited above, and to learn what you can do to help, click here>>>
And to read a wonderful story about a school principal who embraced this concept and chose to do something about it, read this article, “Walla Walla, WA, Tries New Approach to School Discipline – Suspensions Drop 85%” (long but so very, very hopeful and good).
Please share this post with your readers and help spread the word about Mental Illness Awareness Month and childhood trauma.