Death or incarceration of a parent, domestic violence, or living with someone who has drug or alcohol addictions are all traumatic adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.
“To have adverse childhood experiences at an early age naturally leads to not only mental health problems into adulthood, but physical health issues,” said New Jersey Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal.
“If you are a 65-year-old with more than three or four or more ACEs, your chances of living past that point is only about 10 percent of the national average, so it’s tremendous,” said Dr. Steven Kairys, chair of pediatrics at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.
In New Jersey, 41 percent of children 17 years old or younger have experienced one or more ACEs, and 18 percent have had two or more, according to the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative.
“Kids who grow up in those environments have poor self-esteem, their coping strategies aren’t good, they don’t exercise, they don’t take care of themselves, they don’t do well in school, they don’t get the better jobs, they often wind up in juvenile justice, so it’s all those areas. But it also it affects the way the brain actually develops,” Kairys said. “Twenty percent of kids with ADHD have it because of trauma, not because of genetics or other reasons.”
Elnahal says it’s a big problem.
“Especially for harder to reach communities, communities of color, that have a lot of chronic disease issues, more so disproportionately than the general population, and I think all of it is related,” he said.
“Whether you’re looking at your risk of heart disease, or your ability to get through surgery, or your risk of suicide or substance abuse, it’s almost logarithmically connected to how many ACEs you’ve have,” said Kairys.
University of Pennsylvania urban education professor Dr. Howard Stevenson told a room at the annual Building a Culture of Health in New Jersey conference the challenge with ACEs is it needs to be looked into more broadly.
“Post-World War II, veterans of color couldn’t live in certain places, which means they couldn’t access good jobs, but that impact lasts over decades. So you can track back decades of the kind of disadvantage that we see now that’s intransigent in certain communities,” Stevenson said. “The very removal of an industry, the sort of economic policies that favor the moving, actually create the kind of mental health outcomes we see in kids today.”
Elnahal says a new federal grant will help pediatricians across the state to focus on childhood mental health.
“We need to make it easier for practitioners at the front lines — pediatricians, social workers, folks who interact with children — to be able to be trained and screened for adverse childhood experiences so that we may know what the risks are and to address them as early as possible,” Elnahal said.
“I think the ways in which churches can be engaged, barbershops have been healing centers for young folks of color,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson said we should equip those environments where people feel comfortable with more mental health resources.