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.

RC_Whitaker-Photo

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.”

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

Failing schools or failing paradigm?

Roberto is an eight-year-old, former student in my second-grade class.  (All names are pseudonyms.)  In his short life, he’s experienced at least five major life traumas. One: his mother abandoned him when he was a baby. Two: he was placed in foster care with strangers. Three: he joined his father, but shortly after, Daddy was sent to prison. Four: Roberto moved again to live with Grandpop. Grandpop was ill and on house arrest, unable to leave his home, so Roberto was essentially under “house arrest” too, except for school. Roberto came to school, walked the perimeter of the classroom staring out windows, distracting other children. Sometimes, he just walked out of the classroom. His father was eventually released from prison and came to live with Grandpop, but Grandpop soon evicted Daddy after a fight with him. Five: Grandpop died.

Ashley, a bright and engaging nine-year-old, witnessed her stepfather break her stepbrother’s leg with a baseball bat last night. The police were called, invaded her home about 1 a.m., and took her stepfather away. This morning, she came to school as usual, but in a trance, unable to focus.

Jasmine responds much more aggressively. When she is off her medications, and her traumas are re-triggered, her tiny, wiry 45-pound frame can muscle a chair over her head. She screams and curses in guttural tones while heaving the chair at a classmate. She’s being raised by a hesitant uncle in place of her deceased parents.  Jasmine goes home to a darkened row-house, with ”illegal smoke” wafting out the front door that hangs wide open to the street.

Jamar’s been absent from school. After several suicide attempts, he’s at the Crisis Center. Jamar suffered brutal beatings from Mom’s boyfriend, who stuffed a sock in his mouth to muffle his screams. He will come back directly to my classroom from the Crisis Center, without the dedicated adult support he is due.

Ashley, Roberto, Jasmine and Jamar had at least eight other classmates with similar stories in our one classroom at the same time. These four real vignettes are hard to read. They’re tragic. Yet these kids are only a small portion of my class (see “Danny Goes to School).  For the last 13 years, one-half to two-thirds of the students in my urban, public school classrooms have experienced similar lives.  These children are only four of the thousands across only one city: Philadelphia.

Theirs is not a deficit issue. They’re not “sick” or “bad” children; they’re injured.

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

Trying to make LA schools less toxic is hit-and-miss; relatively few students receive care they need

APeacemakers

The Peacemakers of Harmony Elementary School in Los Angeles, CA.

________________________________

For millions of troubled children across the country, schools have been toxic places. That’s not just because many schools don’t control bullying by students or teachers, but because they enforce arbitrary and discriminatory zero tolerance school discipline policies, such as suspensions for “willful defiance”. Many also ignore the kids who sit in the back of the room and don’t engage – the ones called “lazy” or “unmotivated” – and who are likely to drop out of school.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which banned suspensions for willful defiance last May, the CBITS program (pronounced SEE-bits), aims to find and help troubled students before their reactions to their own trauma trigger a punitive response from their school environment, including a teacher or principal.

Gabriella Garcia’s son attended Harmony Elementary School during the 2012-2013 school year. The school has 730 children in kindergarten through fifth grade. She says without CBITS, she would have lost custody of him and her other two children. “But for some reason,” she says, “I let him (her son) take that test.”

Continue reading

In mental illness, let’s go beyond nature v. nurture to look at what interferes with the brain’s function

AmindbodyBased on her ethnographic study of psychiatric residency programs, anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann concluded psychiatry is “of two minds”: one “mind” emphasizes the role of neurochemistry, while the other “mind” places more importance on the context of our suffering, including relationships past and present.

Identifying the origins of mental illness likely depends on both interpretations. There is an undeniable organic component to mental illness, just as psychological and social conditions are inexorably linked to mental well-being. But like the Democrats and Republicans, these two approaches are often pitted against one another, often leading to that old, tiresome nature versus nurture debate.

Unfortunately, in a world of limited resources, including limited time, the implicit guiding question — Where should we place our focus? — naturally divides our attention. Is it helpful to explore genes and neurobiology in our efforts to reach best outcomes? Or is it better to explore the social conditions that contribute to mental disorders? Unfortunately, much like U.S. politics, the treatment of mental illness often is derailed when such questions become fodder for polarizing arguments that serves allegiances and professional agendas more than persons in the throes of mental suffering.

Instead of worrying if nature is more influential than nurture, perhaps it would be more helpful to identify what counts as optimal functioning for the brain. Perhaps we could then focus on the value of combining information, thus leading to better outcomes rather than increased competition (and often, market share). I think the significance of function often gets overlooked because we aren’t adept at looking at any issues from multiple levels. Although the term biopsychosocial was coined to address the issue of scale and focus in the treatment of mental illness, it often feels piecemeal in approach.

Continue reading

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

Continue reading