Have you heard of the Adverse Childhood Experiences – ACE Study?
Western Youth Services (WYS) has been a hub for Children’s Mental Health in Orange County, California since October 1972, treating children, youth and families facing trauma and stress. While we were aware that the study existed, it was not until we watched Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ TEDMED talk that we started to look at our work through the lens of the ACE Study. Dr. Burke Harris passionately spoke about the impact the study has had on her work as a pediatrician. Her presentation provided enormous insight into our work.
In one article, the ACE study was referred to as “the largest, most important public health study you never heard of”… We can relate as we have been called the “best kept secret in Orange County.” Things are about to change.
There is a movement to bring awareness to the fact that childhood trauma is an epidemic. One in five children has a diagnosable mental health condition, in many cases, as a direct result of adverse childhood experiences. This predictive outcome is identified in the ground breaking ACE Study which was conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente in 1998; you can find more information below.
I was fortunate to attend the “Awareness to Action” 2016 Conference on Adverse Childhood Experiences, hosted by the very same Dr. Burke Harris, founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, who also happens to lead this movement. She successfully gathered an amazing and impressive group of professionals that, like her, are determined to affect change. I felt very connected to the people in this room.
Before sharing my insights from this life altering event, here is some information on the ACE Study which we share from the “ACEs Too High” website – https://acestoohigh.com/aces-101/
What is the ACE Study (ACEs)?
ACEs are adverse childhood experiences that profoundly harm children’s developing brains. The term “ACEs” comes from the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, a groundbreaking public health study that discovered that childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. The ACE Study has published about 70 research papers since 1998. Hundreds of additional research papers based on the ACE Study have also been published.
Why are ACEs Significant?
The ACE Study revealed five main discoveries:
1. ACEs are common…nearly two-thirds (64%) of adults have at least one.
2. They cause adult onset of chronic disease, such as cancer and heart disease, as well as mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.
3. ACEs don’t occur alone….if you have one, there’s an 87% chance that you have two or more.
4. The more ACEs you have, the greater the risk for chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. People have an ACE score of 0 to 10. Each type of trauma counts as one, no matter how many times it occurs. You can think of an ACE score as a cholesterol score for childhood trauma. For example, people with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholic. Having an ACE score of 4 increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent, and suicide by 1200 percent. People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, and more autoimmune diseases. People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years.
5. ACEs are responsible for a big chunk of workplace absenteeism, and for costs in health care, emergency response, mental health and criminal justice. So, the fifth finding from the ACE Study is that childhood adversity contributes to most of our major chronic health, mental health, economic health and social health issues.
While at the event, I was reminded, more than once, of one of our clients, Angie.
Angie came to us when she was 15 years old, she should have been looking forward to school events, her friends, and starting to plan for college… Sadly that was not Angie’s story, she suffered a lifetime of abuse, childhood trauma, the type of trauma I heard again and again as I listened to the speakers and had conversations with other attendees.
I thought of how Angie was removed from her mother’s care because of neglect and failure to protect her daughter. How she wanted to give up. All she knew was trauma, she could not imagine a stable future or an environment where she felt like she belonged.
WYS began providing Angie treatment when she was experiencing depression so deep she considered suicide. We helped Angie turn things around, she discovered her own reasons to live and ways to create her future. I am so happy to share that Angie is now 18, she has relocated to another state and is involved in a loving, committed relationship. She now has access to an entirely new life. She now knows happiness is an option.
2016 Conference on Adverse Childhood Experiences “Awareness to Action” – Insights
- Dr. Nadine Burke Harris brought the best of the best together.
- It was encouraging and inspiring to see almost every single profession represented. All had a single purpose to be a part of the movement to prevent adverse childhood experiences from happening and to understand health and behavior in the context of toxic stress. There were attorneys, government agencies, educators/school systems, nurses, pediatricians, documentary film makers, law enforcement, and more.
- The need to continue to do research is crucial and KidsData.org is doing a phenomenal job of mining the data about the health and well being of children across California and keeping the research current and relevant.
- Prevention, early intervention, and treatment of ACEs should not wait until we have more research. We have enough to make a difference NOW.
- We know that there are lifelong consequences to the physical health, mental health, education, and happiness of our children, youth and families. What I saw so clearly was a strong call to action for the mental health industry to step up. The more I learn about the breadth and impact of ACEs, the more I see validation between the growing movement and the work that we do at WYS. What we are doing is working. More people need to know about the treatment success of WYS and other organizations like us.
- In her opening statement, Dr. Burke Harris mentioned that when she opened an event two years ago, she asked the audience members to raise their hands if they heard of ACEs, very few people raised their hands. Only a few weeks ago at the White House, she asked the same question and practically everyone in the audience raised their hands. I am proud to be a part of this movement. After 20 years, ACEs is no longer the best-kept secret and neither are we…
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In our next article: ACEs – From Adversity to Resiliency, we will go deeper into the ACE Study, the impact of childhood trauma, and how we change the trajectory.
Lorry Leigh Belhumeur, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer
Western Youth Services