May 30, 2021

An Ounce of Prevention

By Caroline J. Chantry

We are facing a public health crisis as Americans. I am not referring to COVID, though it has been exacerbated by the pandemic. New evidence highlighting the breadth, depth, and severity of this crisis is published almost daily.

The crisis we are facing is unacceptably high and increasing rates of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs for short, and the resulting health consequences. ACEs are traumatic experiences in childhood such as physical or emotional neglect or abuse, and toxic stress resulting from situations such as parental mental illness or substance abuse, domestic violence or incarceration of family members.

Some of the worst health and social problems in our nation are negative effects of ACEs as these traumatic childhood experiences increase the likelihood of health issues as an adult.

ACEs are prevalent in our communities and span all segments of our community. The CDC states that “61% of adults surveyed across 25 states have experienced at least one type of ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.” The most recent California data reveal even higher rates.

A child’s sense of safety, stability and connection is undermined if they are experiencing chronic and toxic stress. Exposure to intense and consistent stress alters children’s brain development, impacting their attention, decision-making, learning and response to stress.

Children who suffer prolonged trauma are more likely to experience mental and physical illnesses as adults. In a recent PBS interview, California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris stated that people experiencing four or more adverse childhood experiences have double the risk of developing heart disease and cancer.

Abused children are more likely to be violent as juveniles and at higher risk of becoming abusive in adult relationships, likely perpetuating the cycle. ACEs can also negatively impact education, job opportunities and earning potential.

The expansive and long-term impact of ACEs on the mental and physical health of our families and community is costly. We need a preventive approach. If we can intervene in crises before children experience prolonged trauma, then our society as a whole is healthier and stronger.

The Yolo Crisis Nursery is a gem of a resource in our community with its mission to provide early intervention services in a safe environment to nurture children to become healthy and resilient, strengthen parents and preserve families.

One of our clients, Jennifer, and her young son James were shaken to the core by a brutal domestic violence attack. Both mother and son were working hard at starting over when their past came back to haunt them in the middle of the night. Jennifer and James escaped that night with their lives, but both were severely traumatized.

Little James could recall every horrifying detail of the attack, and Jennifer sank into a deep depression. Our nursery staff worked with James in our trauma-informed respite care and preschool program, while Jennifer began attending to necessary legal issues and treatment for her depression.

Flash-forward to today, Jennifer and James are together and thriving. They are a stable family with a home, Jennifer is employed, and James is in preschool. We recently received a note from Jennifer: “As a family who benefited from your compassionate work, and as fellow caring humans, we are forever grateful for and inspired by the strength, dedication, kindness, and understanding with which you provide your crucial services for our community. Thank you so much!”

Jennifer and James are proof that we cannot erase the past or all adverse childhood experiences, but with help, we can work to lessen the impact and make the future as bright as possible.

The need for ACE prevention and mitigation to combat the public health crisis makes the Yolo Crisis Nursery’s mission of early intervention and wraparound services critical. We strive to work with clients to prevent and resolve crises so families can remain intact and children avoid trauma as much as possible.

— Caroline J. Chantry, M.D. is a member of the Yolo Crisis Nursery board of directors. This article was originally published in the Davis Enterprise on May 30, 2021.