Linking childhood trauma and adult health problems
Have you ever wondered why some persons who endured trying conditions as children go on to experience physical and emotional illnesses later in life? Is this a coincidence or is there an actual link?
Jamaica-born paediatrician and founder of the Centre for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, California, Dr Nadine Burke- Harris has confirmed this link. She said illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, mental instability, among others experienced by adults, are linked to traumatic incidents the patients suffered as children.
Burke-Harris was speaking at a lecture series at the Northern Caribbean University, coordinated by the Child Development Agency (CDA) in association with the US Embassy, themed 'Knowing Your ACEs: Uncovering the Link Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Illnesses in Adulthood'.
Through her wellness centre Burke-Harris raises awareness on adverse childhood experiences (ACE)- which lead to toxic stress and poor health outcomes.
According to Burke-Harris' findings, there are ten ACEs which fall into three categories: abuse (physical, emotional and sexual); neglect (physical, emotional); and household dysfunction (mental illness, incarcerated relatives, mother treated violently, substance abuse and divorce).
"Symptoms are not caused by a mental disorder, but rather are the result of a biological impact of stress on their bodies ó children growing up in homes where there was domestic violence, growing up in neighbourhoods that were gang infected and had parents that were mentally ill and not getting treatment or substance dependent and not getting treatment," she said.
With this kind of research not yet done in Jamaica, Burke-Harris revealed that, generally, among those studied, "a person with four or more traumatic childhood experiences is twice as likely to have heart disease, twice as likely to develop cancer, four times as likely to develop Alzheimer's, seven times as likely to become an alcoholic, four and half times more likely to become depressed and 12 times as likely to attempt suicide".
She urged adults to positively impact the lives of children to alleviate toxic stress. The doctor made a call for everyone to join the fight.
"We need to raise awareness. Early adversity is
deadly. We need to do routine screening, and this should happen at the primary care office. When we are able to do the intervention early, it is more effective.
For this work, there is something everyone can do. Start in your own household, educate your family members. This is a public health emergency. I believe we are the solution in our households, in our communities and in our country."
Among those who joined Burke-Harris in the call were panellists Dr Orlean Brown-Earle, Dr Ganesh Shetty, and Dr Pearnel Bell. Brown-Earle and Shetty encouraged the CDA to train caregivers to identify toxic stressors in children who they come in contact with.
But how do you reach out to children who have been traumatised by life-changing circumstances - Bell suggested her own method of using drama, drumming, dance and other art forms to sustain psychological balance and improve child care.
Plans are being put in place to have similar research done here in Jamaica to ascertain best intervention strategies.