Alberta Family Wellness Initiative changes minds by informing Canadians about effects of toxic stress on kids’ brains

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A cartoon outline of a child – in a video – stands alone near a cracked sidewalk heaped with obstacles: giant red bricks labeled “neglect,” “abuse” and “parental addiction.” The voice-over says: “It’s possible to fix some of the damage of toxic stress later on, but it’s easier, more effective and less expensive to build solid brain architecture in the first place.”

The four-minute animation—which covers toxic stress, caregiver-child interaction and the role of communities in building healthy brains—has reached many people since its release in October 2013. But the video is just one snippet of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI), a project aimed to better the lives of children and families in one of Canada’s westernmost provinces.

Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president, Norlien Foundation

Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president, Norlien Foundation

The AFWI, launched in 2007 by the private Norlien Foundation, has an ambitious agenda: to promote the use of scientific knowledge about early brain and biological development in order to change beliefs, policies and practices related to children, families and communities—in short, to “bridge the gap between what we know and what we do,” according to a 2013 AFWI report.

The AFWI began its work by capturing the attention and engagement of high-level “change-makers”—government officials, community leaders, policy experts, academics and administrators who could learn the newest science, discuss it in depth, then take that story home to influence research, policy and practice.

“In the early days, the focus of our effort was on policy-makers and professionals rather than the public. You need to start changing the thinking of those in the system who are making decisions before you start focusing on a public audience,” said Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president of Norlien.

AFWI focuses on the “core story of brain development,” a series of metaphors grounded in emerging biomedical science and developed with the help of the FrameWorks Institute  and the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University.

  • Brains are not just born; they are built through a child’s experiences and interaction.

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Echo Parenting & Education rides the trauma wave

Changing the Paradigm keynote speakers Dr. Janina Fisher and Ruth Beaglehole, Founder of Echo Parenting & Education

Sometimes we don’t notice when history is being made. We ride a wave of logical progression and don’t even notice when it peaks – that snapshot moment when we are lifted, arms outstretched, into the waiting air and remain suspended for one glorious second before the wave breaks and pushes powerfully to shore.

What the heck am I talking about? Our Changing the Paradigm conference. Last month, 120 participants, 22 speakers and a slew of volunteers gathered at The California Endowment for our two-day conference on developmental trauma. Everything went off perfectly. The evaluations were glowing (apart from the person who wanted avocado on the lunchtime sandwiches – I guess you can’t please everyone). But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what some of the speakers had to say:

“It was a deep honor and a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful and inspiring exchange of hearts, minds

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Trauma-informed psychotherapy puts the body – and love – back in mental healthcare

AloveFor the past 50 years, psychotherapy has taken a back seat to biomedical psychiatry, largely due to reliance on medications for the treatment of mental disorders. Yet clinical evidence increasingly points to chronic, unresolved traumatic stress as the source of many — if not most — mental disorders. Furthermore, longitudinal analyses show continued use of psychotropic medications is bad for the body, even causing chronic diseases. Granted, medications can stabilize a body wracked by recurrent distress, but such an approach is hardly a long-term cure. According to psychiatrist and trauma specialist Bessel Van der Kolk, “dramatic advances in pharmacotherapy have helped enormously to control some of the neurochemical abnormalities caused by trauma, but they obviously are not capable of correcting the imbalance.” To correct the “imbalance” often requires learning to inhabit one’s body and relationships in new ways.

Fortunately, the psychotherapeutic treatment of psychological trauma has advanced significantly the past several decades. In part, this is due to scientific discoveries of how the body and relationships naturally defend against traumatic stress. In particular, trauma-informed psychotherapies that draw from neuroscience and attachment studies are more holistic and scientifically based than ever before, although they often support the intuitions held by originators of psychotherapy such as Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud, and C. G. Jung.

The neurobiology of trauma

Pierre Janet was the first to recognize how the body responds to present events as if past traumas were recurring — what today we call flashbacks. He observed patients

“continuing the action, or rather the attempt at action, which began when the [traumatic event] happened, and they exhaust themselves in these everlasting recommencements.”

Today we know the neurobiological reasons for flashbacks. Unlike narrative memories that seamlessly integrate

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Attachment theory through a cultural lens

Father and child (photo by Fredrik Lidarp), Australia

Father and child (photo by Fredrik Lidarp), Australia

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In an article titled “Attachment and Culture (citation below),” Heidi Keller exposes attachment theory’s Western, middle-class assumptions. She argues:

… the definition of attachment in mainstream attachment research are in line with the conception of psychological autonomy, adaptive for Western middle-class, but deviate from the cultural values of many non-Western and mainly rural ecosocial environments.

Keller shows how attachment theory, particularly research that follows on the heels of John Bowlby’s original theory and Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Procedure, assumes the most formative attachment relationship occurs between a mother and her infant. (For a further discussion of Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s work, see my post, Let There Be Love!) But Keller points out that the primacy of the mother-infant bond for attachment may only be the norm “in Western middle-class families which compose less than 5% of the world’s population.”

In most cultures and socioeconomic groups, limited

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