Childhood trauma is strongly associated with dozens of most unpleasant adult health conditions, including depression, PTSD, anxiety disorder, alcohol and drug abuse, heart disease, cancer, HIV, and more.
Terrifying — and sometimes unspeakable — childhood experiences can cause serious strain on a child, and ultimately, later in adulthood.
Instances of a childhood trauma and experiences include emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; domestic violence; separation or divorce of caretakers; or circumstances in which someone in the household has been incarcerated.
In the United States, some states closely monitor childhood trauma data. The purpose of tracking childhood traumatic experiences is primarily because these most unfortunate experiences are considered a cause of nearly 90 percent of adult adverse health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, alcohol and drug abuse, and more.
To this date, 26 states currently track the effects of adverse childhood experiences. However, many U.S. states and commonwealths do not monitor childhood trauma.
Allison Sampson-Jackson, a licensed clinical social worker and director of system of care for Magellan of Virginia, notes there are three ways to respond to a threatening experience: fight, flee or freeze. Allison said children are more likely to freeze, because fighting or fleeing are sometimes not possible or could get them in trouble.
While all three can have a negative impact on the brain, Allison notes, freezing is actually the most toxic. Two children might experience the same traumatic event. But their outcomes could be vastly different — depending on whether they froze or ran away.
A ‘Public Health Epidemic’
Allison explains the lack of attention to critical data pertaining to childhood trauma is a very important public health issue.
Normally, whenever a toxin impacts more than 10 percent of health conditions, public health official, advocates, and lawmakers grow more aware. They become interested in how to stop it to save lives.
Sampson-Jackson notes the irony and lack of awareness many states exhibit.
“And yet despite that, we as a commonwealth, along with many other states, have not taken the same approach with this very important public health issue,”
During Wednesday’s presentation to close to 200 attendees at The Family Impact Seminar on Adverse Effects of Childhood Trauma, Sampson-Jackson explained to the General Assembly’s Commission on Youth the serious toll adverse childhood experiences can have on a child and later in adulthood.
“This is a public health epidemic that is affecting us nationally. I would guess that each one of us knows someone in our community that has had one of those events happen.”
Co-hosted by the Commission on Youth and Virginia Commonwealth University, the seminar was meant to raise awareness and knowledge about the impact of trauma in youth for lawmakers and stakeholders.
During her presentation, Sampson-Jackson added, “It is an emotional or physical experience that feels life-threatening. And it actually doesn’t matter if it’s emotional or physical — it changes the brain and outcome of health. Perception is actually 100 percent accurate to those perceiving it.”
A Different Perspective
Dr. Michel Aboutanos, professor of surgery at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, spoke about the impacts of trauma. In recent years, he and the other providers at VCU Medical Center have changed the way they approach patients after noticing they kept seeing the same people in the trauma center’s emergency room.
Dr. Aboutanos described seeing a 17-year-old boy come in after he was shot in the leg. His team repaired the damage and sent the young boy home.
Then a few months later, the same boy was shot again. This time the youth was shot in the abdomen. Again, the VCU Health team was able to save his life and send him home.
Dr. Aboutanos expressed his concern.
“A couple months later he comes back and he’s shot in the head, and I watched this young kid die. Everything we put together, everything we did, was just a Band-Aid. Something must change.”
VCU initiated a program called Bridging the Gap. Their mission is, “To reduce and prevent injuries through ongoing education, research, and community outreach throughout the central Virginia region.”
Since 2007, the program has grown from only 1 patient to 143 patients in 2016.
Dr. Aboutanos added his response to the intervention program’s success.
“They’re a captive audience. You catch them at a moment when they’re susceptible, they’re sitting alone with their injuries, and their friends aren’t around. You build that trust.”
Through violence intervention at the hospital, Aboutanos said, his team is able to help patients get the help they need and avoid returning to the hospital with a similar injury.
In 2016, Virginia started collecting data on childhood trauma. The information will become available to the Department of Health later this year.