The message of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris to the 900 Virginia health, education, and human services professionals and advocates at the Voices for Virginia’s Children Summit on Childhood Trauma and Resilience last week was clear: Virginia, as well as other states, needs to move forward promptly on an evidence-based early human services program to screen for adverse childhood experiences and coordinate resources to respond to the needs. It was not a hard sell to the audience. They had already given her a lengthy standing ovation before she started her speech. Most knew of her pioneering work from her book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, or her Ted Talk, “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime,” that has reached over 2.8 million viewers on www.ted.com/talks. She is known for linking adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress with harmful effects to health later on in life. She founded the Center for Youth Wellness and is California’s first Surgeon General.
According to Dr. Harris, exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACE) including abuse, neglect, domestic violence and parental mental illness and substance abuse affect 34.8 million children across socio-economic lines and affect not only brain development but can change children’s hormonal systems, immune systems and even their DNA. The results are behavioral problems, learning difficulties and physical health issues. In adults, exposure to ACEs dramatically increases the likelihood of 7 out of 10 leading adult causes of death including heart disease and cancer.
For Dr. Harris early detection is key. Screening for ACEs in children is possible and with appropriate support services the existing and future harm to children’s brains and bodies caused by toxic stress can be alleviated. As Dr. Harris told the group in Richmond, “routine screening for ACEs at pediatric well-child visits should be as common as checking for hearing loss or exposure to lead paint. With early detection children can be treated and saved from a lifetime of health issues.”
Virginia currently has 19 communities throughout the state that have programs referred to as “trauma-informed community networks” that are at various stages of development of programs and services utilizing the findings of research on trauma and its impact on public health. There is little doubt that Dr. Harris’s visit will increase interest among practitioners and policy makers as to a more widespread use of the results of studies on ACEs. An effective program of ACE detection and intervention could lead to reduced health care costs, better performance of students in school, and a better quality of life for those involved. In the long-term, costs would be low or minimal as better diagnoses of conditions should lead to more effective treatments and a reduction in costs.
I look forward to working with Voices for Virginia’s Children–celebrating its 25th anniversary at the Summit–and its advocates to determine the most effective ways to make all programs trauma informed that will serve the entire Commonwealth. Such an approach will reduce the lingering harm that can come from undetected adverse childhood experiences.