How the NFL can stop abuse AND keep its players on the field

A young fan wears an Adrian Peterson jersey.  [Photo: Ann Heisenfelt/AP]

A young fan wears an Adrian Peterson jersey. [Photo: Ann Heisenfelt/AP]

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Many people are happy that the Vikings kicked Adrian Peterson off the team and that Ray Rice can no longer play for the Ravens. Their off-field violence has cascaded into harm and loss for everyone involved – spouses, children, team, league and fans — all because of the consequences of their childhood trauma. And the only way the NFL can stop further abuse, harm and loss is…well…to deal with its players’ childhood trauma.

The severe and toxic stresses in Peterson’s past – or what we in the trauma-informed community count on a scale from one to 10 as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs – aren’t minor. As a child, he lost his father to prison, suffered through his parents’ divorce, saw his brother killed by a drunk driver, and was beaten by his stepfather. Repeating the pattern, he whipped his own four-year-old son with a switch so harshly that he raised welts on the child’s body. And if Peterson is convicted and goes to prison, his son can add another ACE to his trauma-filled life.

Peterson and Rice are two of millions of child and spouse abusers who love their families and can learn from their mistakes, if provided with help early enough. The average child abuser or spouse abuser isn’t dirty, disheveled, reeking of alcohol or stoned on meth. Child and spouse abusers are corporate CEOs, ministers, priests, actors, business owners, teachers, truck drivers, physicians, nurses, basketball heroes, journalists, computer programmers, and your next-door neighbors.

They’re dads and moms who have a hard time controlling their emotions when they’re under stress because they themselves were abused. Nobody helped them when they were kids and nobody’s helping them as adults.

Plain and simple, childhood trauma is the nation’s No. 1 public health problem. The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) – the largest public health study you never heard of — shows that childhood trauma is very, very common. (ACE surveys in 22 states echo the results.) And this childhood adversity causes violence, including family violence, as well as the adult onset of chronic disease and mental illness.

By learning about the science of childhood adversity, and following the lead of many other organizations that are becoming trauma-informed, the NFL could have players whose families are happier and healthier, it could have better players (more focused, less stressed), and it might never have to deal with a Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson situation again.

The NFL has 1,696 players. Of those 1,696 players, probably two-thirds – 1,119 young men – have experienced one type of serious childhood trauma. And it’s likely that 22 percent – about 370 players –

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Mindfulness protects adults from physical, mental health consequences of childhood abuse, neglect

Aeye2Fact #1: People who were abused and neglected when they were kids have poorer physical and mental health. The more types of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) – physical abuse, an alcoholic father, an abused mother, etc. – the higher the risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, obesity, being violent or experiencing violence. Got an ACE score of 4 or more? Your risk of heart disease increases 200%. Your risk of suicide increases 1200%.

Fact #2: Mindfulness practices improve people’s physical and mental health.

Now, says Dr. Robert Whitaker, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics and public health at Temple University, there’s one more important fact: People who are mindful are physically and mentally healthier, no matter what their ACE scores are.

This study, to be published in the October issue of Preventive Medicine, is the first to look at the relationship between ACEs, mindfulness and health. And it has implications for anyone, and especially those who take care of children– teachers, parents, coaches, healthcare and childcare workers.

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Dr. Robert Whitaker

Many people think of mindfulness as sitting around and saying “Ommmm.” There’s actually more to it, and it’s worth explaining. People who aren’t mindful don’t regulate their own emotions very well. Situations that trigger traumatic memories may cause people who aren’t mindful to lose focus on what’s happening currently, and lead them to make snap judgments and have knee-jerk reactions of anger, frustration, or fear, which can further the spread stress and trauma. They also ruminate on situations they can’t control, and can’t let go. And they may not even be conscious that they’re doing any of this. They just think it’s part of their personality.

Here’s what it’s like not to be mindful:

  • “My co-worker’s angry today. I must have done something wrong. She’s JUST like my mother: moody, angry, a screamer. Well, I’d better get my defenses up and give her a piece of my mind before she attacks me.”

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To prevent childhood trauma, pediatricians screen children and their parents…and sometimes, just parents…for childhood trauma

TabithaLawson

Tabitha Lawson and her two happy children

When parents bring their four-month-olds to a well-baby checkup at the Children’s Clinic in Portland, OR, Drs. Teri Petersen, R.J. Gillespie and their 15 other partners ask the parents about their adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

When parents bring a child who’s bouncing off the walls and having nightmares to the Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris doesn’t ask: “What’s wrong with this child?” Instead, she asks, “What happened to this child?” and calculates the child’s ACE score.

In rural northern Michigan, a teacher tells a parent that her “problem” child has ADHD and needs drugs. The parent brings the child to see Dr. Tina Marie Hahn, who experienced more childhood trauma than most people. Instead of writing a prescription, Hahn has a heart-to-heart conversation with the parent and the child about what’s happening in their lives that might be leading to the behavior, and figures out the child’s ACE score.

What’s an ACE score? Think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood trauma.

Why is it important? Because childhood trauma can cause the adult onset of chronic disease (including cancer, heart disease and diabetes), mental illness, violence, becoming a victim of violence, divorce, broken bones, obesity, teen and unwanted pregnancies, and work absences.

The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) measured 10 types of childhood adversity: sexual, physical and verbal abuse, and

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Patrick Kennedy delivers raw, revealing speech to mental health advocates

Just before former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy delivered the closing speech to attendees of the National Council for Behavioral Health conference, my daughter and I had a warm, light-hearted conversation with him outside the hall about my daughter’s work in peer services in Texas, about her anticipated motherhood, his young children, and about a Texas ranch he visited once that is bigger than the entire state Rhode Island. We stuck around to hear him talk, even though we thought we could probably miss it since it was part of the send-off for attendees going on visits to Capitol Hill and we weren’t going. We were grateful we stayed; here’s why.Image

Kennedy gave a raw and revealing talk about his mental illness, addiction, and the “God-sized” hole in his soul before his recovery. He said his illness is “bio/psycho/social”, but added that it is also “spiritual.” After achieving successes in his political career—election to the Rhode Island state legislature at 21, Member of Congress at 27, master fundraiser for Democrats—you “would have thought that would have filled the hole in my soul but it didn’t.”

After being arrested “on the high seas, in airports, and by traffic cops,” and being in rehab over and over again, he felt that as long as he was re-elected, he was managing. He was, after all,  meeting the family’s definition of success by winning elective office and serving the public.

“Would I have freely chosen to bring such disregard, such disdain, and antipathy for me and bring shame on my family, like I woke up one day and said this is how I want to be perceived — as an alcoholic, drug addict who can’t get his life together? That’s not what I want for my life. And yet it was the inevitable result of me living in my illness and not knowing there was a solution. And of course I was given solutions and pointed to rehab over and over again. You would have thought I would have gotten it through my thick head that I had a problem. But my real problem was denial, thinking that if I could just continue to function and manage—continue to get re-elected­—then I must be okay.”

Then three years ago, after crashing into a barrier at the U.S. Capitol, he waited for the “final jackpot.” He woke up, not remembering what had happened the night before. Did he have a Chappaquiddick of his own (a referral to an accident that involved his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy)? Fortunately, the event took place at 3:00 a.m., when the streets and sidewalks, were empty and no one was hurt.

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Want to reduce mental illness? Address trauma. Want to save the world? Address trauma.

Our Earth and and moon.

Our Earth and moon

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Different explanations have been given for the increased number of people suffering from mental illness. Some have claimed the increase is the result of ever-expanding diagnostic criteria and syndromes that risk medicalizing normal emotional reactions. Others argue the increase is the result of the pharmaceutical industry financially courting the medical establishment as well as using advertisements to attract potential users of their medications. While both these arguments seem correct, they nevertheless fail to address that an increasing number of people regularly experience despair and anguish and are struggling to make a meaningful life, if not keep themselves psychologically, socially, and financially afloat.

I would like to suggest an additional explanation for the increase in mental illness: The upsurge is the result of the collective failure to alleviate conditions that contribute to trauma-related stress. I also believe the mental health field has stood in the way of people overcoming mental illness and returning to growth-centered lives. In particular, models of mental illness as chronic, genetic-based disorders gives us the sense that we are reaching the origins of our suffering — that is to say, the genes we inherited — when in actuality, we risk denying the traumatizing conditions in which many of us grew up or continue to live. Although a diagnosis and medications may provide temporary relief, they may also cause Americans to evade making the challenging changes that are necessary for moving into an emotionally sustainable future.

Childhood abuse and other emotional damaging experiences are so prevalent today that trauma-focused psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk claimed the single most important health problem facing Americans is our exposure to what are increasingly referred to as “adverse childhood experiences,” which have been rigorously

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Survey shows 1 in 5 Iowans have 3 or more adverse childhood experiences

iowaacesIowa’s 2012 ACE survey found that 55 percent of Iowans have at least one adverse childhood experience, while one in five of the state’s residents have an ACE score of 3 or higher.

In the Iowa study, there was more emotional abuse than physical and sexual abuse, while adult substance abuse was higher than other household dysfunctions.iowaprevalence

This survey echoed the original CDC ACE Study in that as the number of types of adverse childhood experiences increase, the risk of chronic health problems — such as diabetes, depression, heart disease and cancer — increases. So does violence, becoming a victim of violence, and missing work days.

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Terrifying children into a life of asthma

Credit: Cellular Image/Flickr

Credit: Cellular Image/Flickr

Sometimes the clearest indicator of a family’s dysfunction is, unfortunately, illness in its children. Like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, it’s the children who are most susceptible to the toxicity of family addiction and dysfunction. Hurt people hurt people, and literally scare the life out of little kids.

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