When I was first starting my practice, I spent a lot of time at the Saginaw County Juvenile Detention Center, where I was tasked with taking care of the young inmates’ medical needs, but where I could not help but notice that these individuals, many of whom were viewed by society as criminals, were more accurately described as childhood victims of emotional and physical abuse. The lives they lived were dangerous, lacking in parental care and devoid of love. We as a society had failed these kids, and as far as I could see, continued to fail them.
So, what about YOUR childhood? How was it, Good, Bad? I know people who have had idyllic childhoods. Loving, stable families. All their needs met…emotional as well as physical. My children fall into that category, hopefully yours do as well. Little or no stress. Numerous fun experiences and opportunities. My own childhood, not so much. More on this later.
On the whole, though, it turns out, MOST children have something bad happen during their childhood, and by bad, I mean something really-truly-awfully bad, like physical or emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, exposure to domestic violence, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, or incarceration of a family member. How do we know this? Because a huge study (17,000 people by Kaiser Permanente) revealed that 2/3rds of children have experienced one or more of the above traumatic situations. Wow! In other words, if you’re sitting on an airplane row with three seats, and you look to your right and you look to your left, the chances are that you’re sitting next to one or two people who have experienced trauma in childhood, and there is a high likelihood that YOU are one of those people.
So, why is this important? Because the neurobiologists are now positing that these hyper-stressful experiences lead to permanent changes to the human organism, either to one’s epigenetic DNA, which can be passed on to one’s offspring, and/or to one’s developing brain, which can affect how one handles stress (read, how one relates to controlled substances, or alcohol, or risky behaviors, or tobacco, or overeating, or cardiovascular disease; or even to depression and anxiety). In a nutshell, adverse childhood experiences could explain the origins of what is ailing patients today.
Granted, this is a relatively new field of medical study, but is intriguing, nonetheless. Epidemiologists, endocrinologists, cardiologists, psychiatrists and others will doubtless be researching and discussing this issue for decades to come, and we will be hearing much, much more about it as time goes on.
What is evident is that our children are suffering, and that they need help. It is unacceptable that, in the richest country on the planet, two thirds of our offspring are traumatized and that precious little has been done about this.
THRIVE, as it happens, has a plan. Of the 34 most-needed initiatives in our community, THRIVE is starting out with a bang, securing funding for a whopping 8 of those initiatives; and I am pleased to learn that tackling adverse childhood experiences is one of those eight!
THRIVE is, as we speak, building (with the financial support of the Michigan Health Endowment Fund) both an education program and a treatment program.
The education part recognizes that we need to convince everyone in the community that these kids need help, not judgment, and certainly not punishment. It is a PR campaign, and it will not be easy.
The treatment part will include specific interventions to support those who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, as well as to prevent them in the first place. These interventions include developing nurse-family partnerships and other forms or parental education and support. A pro-family group putting it’s values into practice.
Now, back to my own childhood. It was actually affected by three of those elements of childhood adversity: physical abuse and neglect, as well as substance abuse. Yet I am pretty well adjusted, am I not? Well, maybe not so much. I have required counseling on several occasions, and I’m told that I have difficulty making emotional attachments with other people. Also, I tend to be overly negative at times. Sure I have chosen an extremely stressful occupation, and several times had every excuse to be burned out, but maybe, just maybe, my problems were largely or even partly the result of those early childhood experiences. I now tend to think so, although my own experience was hardly on the same level of magnitude with that of kids at the Juvenile Center.
Let us hope that, in the future, with the help of interventions such as these, those kids at the Juvenile Center, and kids such as myself, and perhaps yourself, or your friends or relatives, will not need to suffer such traumas without helpful intervention.