Mountain Family column: Childhood trauma has lifelong impact on health
In this month of April, designated as both Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Abuse Prevention Month, Mountain Family Health Centers wants to raise awareness about the severe impacts of child abuse and maltreatment and let the community know how to help children and families have the support they need to be healthy and successful.
Children’s experiences early in life, and the environments in which they have them, shape their developing brain and powerfully impact whether they grow up to be healthy, productive members of society. Children who experience trauma, through a single or repeated traumatic events, neglect or maltreatment, can have their brain structure changed with lifelong effects.
According to the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Children can experience trauma from childhood abuse, which may include physical, psychological or sexual abuse, and physical or emotional neglect. They can also experience trauma from household dysfunction, when family or household members have mental illness or substance use disorders, or are violent, incarcerated, separated or divorced. Volumes of research have shown the more of these Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) a child has, the more they are at risk for the chronic diseases people develop as adults, as well as social and emotional problems. This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence and suicide.
In our communities, this is compounded because families are exposed to high levels of chronic stress — known as toxic stress — due to the difficulties in obtaining the basic things they need for their health and well-being. These include adequate housing and transportation, economic and food security and access to health care among others.
Fortunately, the health system in our region is beginning to look for ways to address these “social determinants of health”, through creative partnerships to develop resources for individuals and families and work across agencies for not only patients’ disease treatment but also their full health and well-being needs. Rocky Mountain Health Plans and a large group of providers and community agencies on the Western Slope were notified last week of a federal grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for just this work.
Providers of mental and physical health care are also now working to include trauma assessment and care into their services in the hopes of understanding the impact of trauma experienced upon a person’s health, and promoting both resilience and recovery. This is called Trauma Informed Care, and it involves recognizing and responding to the effects of trauma, along with assisting clients to achieve a sense of safety and rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.
As community members, we can practice this same thing. If we understand the impacts of trauma on our neighbors and work to promote resiliency for families, persons who have experienced trauma may become more empowered and healthier, families will be strengthened and children can be protected.
There are many resources available in our communities you can reach out to for more information or assistance, including your primary care or behavioral health provider, county public health and human services departments, domestic violence agencies including Advocate Safehouse and Response, the River Bridge Regional Center (for child abuse and sexual assault victims and prevention) and family support organizations including Family Resource Center of the Roaring Fork School District, Aspen Family Support and Family Visitor Programs.
Mountain Family Health Centers encourages all persons and organizations to play a role in making our valleys healthier places for children and families. We can all help prevent child abuse and neglect by making meaningful connections with children, youth and families in our communities, and ensuring parents and caregivers have the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to nurture their children.
Carolyn Hardin is a development consultant for Mountain Family Health Centers and other nonprofits, with 30 years of experience in public health and human services in the Roaring Fork Valley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.