We measure trauma through adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Why is trauma so problematic?
ACEs result in some of our country’s most intractable societal problems —reduced academic achievement and educational attainment, alcoholism and drug abuse, depression and suicide, obesity, unemployment, incarceration, and poverty. Listen to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris discuss the effects of childhood trauma across a lifetime from a healthcare perspective.
What freaks us out—
Poverty and trauma change the brains of the kids experiencing them — A recent study found key structures in the brain are connected differently in economically disadvantaged children than in children raised in more affluent settings. In particular, the brain’s hippocampus, a structure key to learning, memory and regulation of stress, and the amygdala, which is linked to stress and emotion, connect to other areas of the brain differently in economically disadvantaged children than in kids whose families had higher incomes.
Trauma is transmitted intergenerationally — Research shows toxic stress experienced by women during pregnancy can negatively affect genetic “programming” during fetal development, which can contribute to a host of bad outcomes later in life. Infants born to women who experienced four or more ACEs while pregnant were two to five times more likely to have poor physical and emotional health outcomes by 18 months of age.
Plus, the economic costs—
The estimated cost for just one year of child maltreatment in the United States is $124 billion. If the income achievement gap was closed in 2008, the US GDP would have been $607 billion higher. Adults with a high number of ACEs are more likely to be unemployed, incarcerated, and chronically ill, and much more likely to use social services.
Why now? Why us?
ACEs in low-income communities have been labeled a chronic public health disaster. We need to prevent adverse childhood experiences and, at the same time, change our systems — educational, criminal justice, healthcare, mental health, public health, workplace — so that we don’t further traumatize someone who’s already traumatized.
When approaching this problem, one challenge many organizations have faced is the diversity of experiences that fall under the umbrella of ACEs—from poverty to parental incarceration to sexual abuse—which may suggest that no single strategy will be adequate. This is why giving kids the fundamental tools they need: emotional regulation, coping strategies and resilience is so powerful.