It’s been several years since landmark research, known as the Adverse Childhood Experience Study or ACEs has been widely shared with communities in 21 states, including Washington.
ACEs refer to experiences during childhood that include abuse, neglect and family dysfunction. The study of over 17,000 subscribers of Kaiser Permanente in San Diego found that individuals with early life experiences of traumatic events are more likely to engage in substance abuse, develop mental illness and emotional disturbance and, new to many of us, experience physical health conditions such as obesity and heart disease.
Local communities across the country, moved by these findings, are uniting to actively and effectively work to diminish ACEs and improve the lives of their children.
The ACEs questionnaire asks about 10 childhood experiences - abuse (physical, sexual, emotional), neglect (physical, emotional) and family dysfunction.
These family dysfunction indicators include a person in the home with mental illness, a family member with drug addiction or alcohol related illness, parental discord (divorce, separation, abandonment), the witnessing of domestic violence against the mother or incarceration of any family member. The impact of each of these experiences is interrelated and has a cumulative effect on the child both during childhood and throughout their life.
For example, 87 percent of people with one ACE have at least a second ACE, and these hallmarks of difficult childhood experiences are common.
In Kitsap County, preliminary analysis indicates that at least 30 percent of us report between three and six ACEs, and 2 percent of us report between seven and eight ACEs.
A common reaction by an adult who has experienced multiple ACEs and subsequent lifelong poor health and well-being, when learning about ACEs, is “that’s what happened to me, now I understand.”
This powerful acknowledgement of the lifelong impacts of trauma experienced as a child can open the door for healing, not just for the individual, but for whole communities.
For example, in Walla Walla, parents, community members and professionals have deliberately created activities that have already begun to reduce the impact of ACEs (www.resiliencetrumpsaces.org)
Here in Kitsap County, through the 2011 - 2012 KCHP community member health priority planning process (www.kitsapchp.com), ACEs emerged as a strategy to address the priority “ensure all children and youth receive the support necessary to be healthy throughout life.”
Subsequently, a loose knit “Friends of ACEs” workgroup formed, and the Kitsap County Commission on Children and Youth adopted community education about ACEs as a primary focus.
Recognizing there is rapidly growing interest in Kitsap County to create a community wide ACEs Initiative, these groups have recently combined their energy. You can learn more or get involved by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or Gay Neal at 360-377-4879.
This column on mental health issues is offered once a month by KMH.