Maine has the nation’s highest rate of anxiety and the third highest rate of depression among children ages 3-7. It is above the national rate for behavior problems and children diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Attention Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD). The average number of suicides per year by youth under age 20 is well above the national average and has risen by 50 percent in just five years.
It’s time to ask if these frightening statistics from the Maine Children’s Alliance’s Maine KIDS COUNT 2019 Data Book are connected to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
The experiences include emotional abuse, witnessing domestic violence, alcoholism, bullying and divorce. Children with two or more ACEs are more than three times as likely to consider suicide than children with zero or one, according to the data book.
ACEs create a disrupted stress response affecting the neurological, immune, hormonal and cardiovascular systems. This toxic stress determines which genes get turned on or off when dealing with stress, which can be passed on to the next generation, as discussed in “ The Deepest Well” by California’s Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris. The studies in her book emphasize that ACEs occur at similar rates across all socio-economic groups.
Burke Harris has made raising awareness of ACEs one of her top priorities, and professionals here in Maine are increasingly part of this work.
“Adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress constitute the major public health issue of our time,” Burke Harris said in an interview earlier this year. “Childhood adversity (ACEs) leads to long-term changes in the structure and function of our brains and bodies, and those changes can subsequently impact educational attainment and risk of violence or incarceration. They dramatically affect health, with significant risks for the leading causes of death… including heart disease, stroke, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.”
The need for intervention is clear. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have demonstrated that a child who experienced a certain level of trauma at a young age will still have measurable changes in his/her brain as a teen — even if the trauma no longer exists and his living situation is stable and secure. But, as Burke Harris points out, poor outcomes are not inevitable.
“Adversity is not destiny,” Burke Harris said. “The science is clear: early intervention improves outcomes.”
She names six critical treatment areas: sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, mental health support for child and parent, and healthy relationships. These, as well as meditation, boost the brain changes that help rewire the brain and promote increased physical and mental health.
The movement to combat ACEs is national and active in Maine. Hospitals and health providers in southern and central Maine are beginning universal screening for ACEs. The Maine Resiliency Building Network hosts presentations state-wide to educate teachers, parents, health providers and the businesses community about ACEs, and how to help all children thrive. Clarity Services offers trainings on how language can help heal brains and help us create connection with others even during conflict.
Over the years, I have worked with a wide variety of children and families: special needs to gifted, toddlers to adult, rich to poor. I and my colleagues, too often, had no apparent answer for a child with overwhelming problems. I now believe that the missing piece was ACEs.
It’s time for all professionals working in the health, education and incarceration fields — and all communities — to respond to this health crisis. It’s also time for all to consider if they are passing on to their children the impact of their own adverse childhood experiences, and how they can help heal themselves and their loved ones.
Joyce Schelling is a retired educator, instructor of resiliency training, and current board member of Community Compass, working to break the cycle of poverty in the 10 towns on the peninsula from Deer Isle to Orland.