GRAY — There is a tremendous health crisis that is affecting our children. It not only affects them but also is often passed from one generation to another. In any other situation of this magnitude, there would be an immediate societal response. Unfortunately, this health crisis comes attached to a lot of stigma and shame. We need to talk about this crisis – it is childhood trauma, also known as childhood adversity.

In 2005 the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente published a study that included over 17,000 participants. The study, now known as the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study, looked at 10 categories of childhood adversity including physical, emotional or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, growing up in a household where a parent was mentally ill, substance-dependent or incarcerated or where there was parental separation or divorce or domestic violence.

It was found that two-thirds of people have at least one adverse childhood experience and that one in eight people has four or more. This study and an abundance of studies following showed ACEs linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential and early death. As the numbers of adverse childhood experiences increase, so does the risk for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, suicide, cancer, diabetes and substance abuse and lasting impacts on education and income.

So what happens to children who experience trauma? The human brain needs a secure attachment to thrive. The brain and our physiology are hard-wired to attach, bond and learn self-regulation from our primary caregiver. Without attachment we cannot thrive. The difficult truth is that many children are being raised by adults who are unable to reciprocate the primal bond needed to raise a healthy child. Oftentimes this is because of the parent’s own childhood adversity. So the pattern continues. This is where the shame comes in. In order to screen and offer treatment to these children we need the support and participation of their caregivers. There is no one to blame.

Trauma distorts brain development. It disrupts the neural pathways needed to self regulate. The crisis is that many of our children are growing up with trauma in their lives that does not allow healthy growth into adulthood. Instead these children are growing up hard-wired to not feel safe or connected. This is affecting their social, emotional and cognitive abilities and creating health issues that will affect them as adults, just as may have happened for the caregivers who are raising them. The good news is that nurturing care has been shown scientifically to heal us down to our DNA. Nurturing releases oxytocin and interrupts the biological stress response.

Maine needs to look to California and create a policy to screen for childhood trauma. California’s surgeon general has just implemented a statewide screening program for childhood trauma that will begin in January.

This will be done by screenings with both parents and child using a screening of the 10 adverse childhood experiences categories. Maine needs to follow in California’s footsteps and screen adults and children for this health crisis in their doctor’s office just as we screen for other health problems.

Exposure to these high doses of adversity is harmful for kids’ health. When early identification and support are implemented it can greatly increase health outcomes. This crisis is the source of so many of our social, biological, mental health and behavioral health negative outcomes. It affects all areas of our communities from the educational system, justice system, health care, legal and on. Prevention of childhood adversity which begins with screening could save our country trillions of dollars a year and truly have an impact on every one of our lives. Acknowledging and responding to this tremendous crisis could lessen the suffering and improve the health of generations of children.

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