Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are a hot topic right now in fields involving children. Between 1995 and 1997, Kaiser-Permanente, a healthcare consortium, surveyed over 17,000 of its own employees to examine how their childhood experiences impacted their lives as adults. The bottom line of the survey was that there was a connection between how much adversity someone faced in childhood and risk factors for health in adulthood. In short, childhood experiences such as child abuse, neglect, violence and other challenges in the home, such as family disruptions caused by substance abuse and mental illness, can lead to emotional problems and health-risk behaviors. These behaviors can then lead to disease and social problems, even resulting in earlier death.
Researchers have discovered that ACEs are common and about 64 percent of adults in the United States have some. ACEs are linked with diseases such as cancer, heart disease and mental illness. A person’s ACE “score” (derived from a simple Adverse Childhood Experience assessment) is similar to a cholesterol score, but measures for trauma in childhood. Someone with an ACE score of 4 is twice as likely to be a smoker and 7 times as likely to be an alcoholic. By having a score of 4 or more, there is a 400 percent increase in the chances of having lung problems and a 1,200 percent increase in the likelihood of attempted suicide.
Violence, multiple marriages, and autoimmune disease were also higher with higher ACE scores. A score of 6 is correlated with a 20-year early demise. The list of relatable problems in life as related to ACEs could go on. Problems with employee absenteeism, healthcare costs and the justice system are other considerations. Childhood experiences can impact physical, emotional, financial and social health.
A flaw that some see in the Kaiser Permanente study is that of the 17,000 participants, most were white individuals with college educations, jobs and good healthcare. They were also considered middle to upper-middle class. This means that the findings should not be generalized to the entire population and there may be populations who have an average much higher than a score of 4.
But some good news is that resiliency can make a big difference. Resilience is a phenomenon, being studied by researchers, that is a resource to help people weather the storms of life. It’s the ability to “bounce back.” Basically, research has shown that the more resilient a person is, the better they handle trauma later in life. For instance, if someone grows up in a violent home but has a teacher who really cares, they have membership in a group like church or Boy Scouts, and they grow up knowing that they have value, they are more likely to not be plagued by the unfortunate results of ACEs. Some people seem to be born with a little more hardiness, but resilience can work for those that don’t naturally have it. Resiliency factors are things like caring adults, a sense of belonging to a group, or mastering a skill like a sport or a musical instrument. But the most important resiliency factor is much simpler: love. Science is actually showing us that love is what heals trauma. A caring relationship can help prevent a dark future.
Sometimes people ask, “Why can’t the victims of crime just move on?”, “Why they just can’t get over it?”, or “Why can’t they pull themselves up by their bootstraps like I did?” As some of said, you have to have the bootstraps in order to be able to pull them up. Our local communities can help provide resiliency, or “bootstraps”, to hurting people within our reach.
Children need protection. We need to educate parents and caregivers on how to protect a child from experiencing adversities that could be prevented. If a child is born with a couple of ACEs, we can help caregivers learn how to prevent more ACEs. For children who have already experienced four or more, we can give them the support they need to mitigate the effects of their ACEs. Strong support from educators, healthcare, and social institutions can help children recover. For adults who have ACEs, we can provide the emotional support and relationships they need to heal.
People do recover, but they need caring relationships in order to do so. People need to know that they are not going to just “get over” the traumatic loss they have experienced. But they are going to go on; they can learn and grow from the adverse experiences and lead a healthy life. They just need the support in place to help them do so.
The Gallia Citizen’s for Prevention and Recovery (Gallia CPR) is a coalition of volunteers, agencies and organizations working together across our community to address the prevention of addiction, violence, and suicide in Gallia County. Gallia CPR meets at noon on the second Monday of each month at Holzer Health Systems on Jackson Pike and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like more information on adverse childhood experiences and resilience, visit acestoohigh.com
Amy Sisson wrote this column on behalf of the Gallia Citizen’s for Prevention and Recovery (Gallia CPR).