Research shows only a tiny percentage of physicians integrating PACEs science

Three relatively recent studies from different parts of the U.S. show that only a tiny percentage of physicians, medical school faculty and other healthcare providers are integrating practices and policies based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences (PACEs).

Why it matters: For people in the PACEs community, the following is news that’s 20 years old: Adverse childhood experiences are common, preventable and linked to six out of the top ten leading causes of death in the United States.

As one of the studies noted: “Positive and negative experiences in childhood shape our trajectory of health or illness for our entire lives, and this impact can be attributed to the brain-body physiology that results from our experiences during childhood.”

The science is well established. Thousands of research papers have been published about the long- and short-term health effects. Every U.S. state has done an ACE survey, many more than one. Legislation addressing childhood trauma and PACEs science has been passed in 39 states. Dozens of books have been written about the topic, including two bestsellers; one of those—Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score—has been on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for 178 weeks. Physicians who have been early adopters for more than a decade say they would never go back to not integrating it into their practices.

In 2016, only eight out of 192 medical schools included content about childhood trauma, and that could be just a single lecture. Early adopters in the medical community know that if PACEs science isn’t integrated into medical schools, benefits of its knowledge will never get to patients. And people WANT their doctors to know about this. Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology and How You Can Heal, posted this article on ACEsTooHigh.com: Childhood trauma leads to lifelong chronic illness—so why isn’t the medical community helping patients? It’s had more than two million page views and hundreds of comments.

Who did the studies and why? In Muskegon County, MI, Resilience Muskegon, a community organization created by mental health agency HealthWest, did a survey of county residents that showed a huge disconnect between the healthcare system, which is highly rated, and the health of people in the county. A local ACE survey showed that 31.4 percent of adults have experienced 4 or more ACEs, nearly three times the number in the original CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which showed 12.5 percent had an ACE score of 4 or higher. This prompted researchers to recruit 226 physicians from Mercy Health, a hospital and healthcare system that serves 85% of the county, to participate. They asked if they knew about ACEs science, if they used it in their practice, and if they had a personal history of ACEs.

In Texas, researchers from the University of Texas and the University at Albany, NY, recruited 85 healthcare providers from Central Texas that included physicians, nurses, social workers and other staff who were at least 18 years old and providing care in a medical setting to women or children in Central Texas. Going into the study they thought that most healthcare workers would know about ACEs. They thought that most screened for traditional ACEs such as substance use or mental health issues, more often than ACEs such as bullying or community violence, and they thought that most patients would self-disclose common ACEs. They also thought that healthcare providers familiar with ACEs would implement ACE-informed strategies for patients, such as providing resources for patients or creating an ACE-informed culture in their practice. They were remarkably off target.

In Illinois, a team comprising three medical students and four medical school faculty noticed that “very, very few of our colleagues knew anything about childhood trauma,” says Dr. Audrey Stillerman, one of the authors who is clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They were also interested in why this science that has existed for decades hasn’t been integrated into medical education so that it could become a part of clinical practice. What’s the rub? they wondered. Why isn’t medical education just different now? The team developed a survey to explore these questions; 81 faculty members from the University of Illinois College of Medicine and Rush Medical College in Illinois responded.

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How Vladimir Putin’s childhood is affecting us all

Examine Vladimir Putin’s childhood and you will see an eerie parallel to the atrocities playing out in Ukraine today. His life is a stark example of how childhood adversity is the root cause of most social, economic and mental health issues, as well as violence and chronic disease, as the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences demonstrates.

And while we can’t change the Russian president, we can encourage and educate people not to create more Putins by recognizing how childhood adversity impacts us throughout our lives and by integrating solutions into our healthcare, education, justice and economic systems.

Born in 1952 Leningrad, Putin was a street kid in a city devastated by a horrific, three-year siege by the Nazis during WWII, a genocide described as the world’s most destructive siege of a city. Most of the population of three million people died, one million starving to death. Putin’s father was badly injured in the war, his mother nearly died of starvation. Living in a rat-infested apartment with two other families, the family had no hot water, no bathtub, a broken-down toilet, little or no heat. His father worked in a factory; his mother did odd jobs she could find. A small child, whose two older siblings are believed to have been lost to war and disease, Putin was left to fend for himself, severely bullied by other children.

From his parents he inherited their wartime trauma personified by Nazi forces threatening their existence, ravaging their city and killing their friends and family. With his parents struggling to survive, they were absent or too traumatized to be attentive to their son. There’s no mention of other family members: no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Kindness and affection didn’t seem to have been part of the child Putin’s world.

While the experiences of childhood adversity piled up, two positive experiences changed his trajectory: After years of being labeled a troublemaker in school, a sixth-grade teacher helped him realize his potential. He excelled in high school, learned judo to defend himself, got a law degree and was selected to join the KGB. But the damage that led to his current behavior was done. It produced a machismo man, distrustful and unpredictable, and who cultivates disinformation to advance his own agenda at any cost. 

In her essay, The Ignorance or How We Produce the Evil,” psychologist Alice Miller wrote: “Children who are given love, respect, understanding, kindness and warmth will naturally develop different characteristics from those who experience neglect, contempt, violence or abuse and never have anyone they can turn to for kindness and affection. Such absence of trust and love is a common denominator….All the childhood histories of serial killers and dictators I have examined showed them without exception to have been the victims of extreme cruelty, although they themselves steadfastly denied this.”

Research shows that early abuse and neglect damages an infant’s developing brain. If a child suffers abuse and neglect for years without intervention, the consequences can be dire. As Dr. Bruce Perry, co-author with Oprah Winfrey of What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing, says, the more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely they will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.” 

But without that love in their childhoods, abused people in power can do serious damage. Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedung all suffered years of merciless beatings and other unconscionable abuse in childhood and went on to be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. In Mao’s case, 35 million people. Of course, dictators can’t become dictators absent an environment that supports their ability to accumulate power. In The Real War, Richard Nixon pointed out that the “Darwinian forces of the Soviet system produce not only ruthless leaders, but clever ones.” Stalin killed nearly a million people each year he was in power; in 1938 he sent Khrushchev to Ukraine where he proved his ruthless ways by eliminating 163 out of 166 members of that country’s Central Committee. Of course, not everyone who has an abusive childhood grows up to abuse others; but it’s safe to say that all abusive dictators and autocrats had a childhood filled with abuse and/or neglect, and not enough love. 

So, Putin’s statements on and after Feb. 23, are chilling and revealing: “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by

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Dear Gannett: Great start! Now go the distance.

Gannett launches a network-wide push to rework its crime coverage.” It’s about damn time. We advocated this more than 20 years ago, and we go a LOT further in our suggestions to make crime reporting more relevant, less racist and more useful to communities.

Berkeley Media Studies Group, a public health research organization, launched the Reporting on Violence project throughout California in 1997 and expanded it to interested newsrooms across the U.S. in 2001. The second edition of “The Reporting on Violence: A Handbook for Journalists” came out in 2001. The first, which came out in 1997, was distributed to more than 950 journalists and 100 newsrooms. I wrote the handbooks. Dr. Lori Dorfman, BMSG’s director, edited them. Together, we led the project, which was funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and The California Wellness Foundation.

The immediate response was great—we did workshops in all the major newsrooms in California. But things didn’t change the way I’d hoped. A few news organizations included a few contextual questions in their reporting from time to time, but none changed their crime reporting. The data we gathered inspired the San Jose Mercury News (more info below) to do a series on domestic violence, but despite reporters asking to develop a domestic violence beat, the editors said no.

Remarkably, the basics of crime reporting haven’t changed much since the late 1890s (essentially, the man-bites-dog approach). Why is it taking so long for this change to happen? The irony is that although change is journalism’s bread and butter, getting the journalism community to modernize is like moving a mountain with a spoon and a bucket.

I am a longtime health, science and technology journalist. When I wrote the Reporting on Violence handbook, I’d been covering the epidemiology of violence off and on for several years, after the CDC began taking the same approach to violence and violence prevention as they had with smoking and smoking prevention, and motor vehicle accidents and their prevention. I realized that my profession was part of the problem in how the general public understood violence, and I wanted to do something about it.  

Now Gannett is beginning to make some rudimentary changes. After two years of experimenting in its news organizations in Rochester, NY, and Phoenix, AZ, Gannett is rolling out these revisions across its 250 newsrooms.

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Think you know something about historical trauma? PACEs Connection’s ‘Historical Trauma in America’ series promises to be an eye-opener

The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 unleashed hundreds of articles, books, podcasts, film and online documentaries. It’s not that the roots of racism and inequity in historical trauma hadn’t been known about or written about previous to his death (Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin, anyone?), but the pressures of hundreds of years of injustice began a near explosive untangling from the massive twisted and angry knot they’d formed over generations. It’s been like cutting through a gargantuan ball of rubber bands stretched to their limit: layers upon layers of hurt, unfairness, frustration, lives lost, lives constricted into rigid and narrow boundaries, all because of the human bent toward “othering”. (That’s something that PACEs science clearly demonstrates: There is no us and them. Just us.)

Despite all the stories that have been loosened from the grip of our remarkable ability to ignore what’s in front of us, White people are just beginning to learn—to our ongoing dismay, shame and horror—that racism and inequity are baked into everything we do, into all our systems, in every community in the U.S., even though most of us don’t know or want that. Fortunately, we are now in a time of reckoning, and have the potential to make real change. If you haven’t already put together your reading list to educate yourself, the 27 books here range from Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist”, to Cathy Park Hong’s “Minor Feelings”, to Toni Jensen’s “Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land.”

Despite our individual ACEs, the White people among us have been incredibly fortunate to be born into a power structure from which most of us didn’t even realize we benefited. We’ve been swimming in a sea that we didn’t even know was wet. Thus I think it’s our obligation, from the moment we grok the enormity of how our history granted us immeasurable advantages, to spend the rest of our lives educating ourselves and educating as many people as we can to change our systems. That’s a major goal of our work at PACEs Connection, the social network that accompanies ACEs Too High.

Over the last two years, PACEs Connection team members Ingrid Cockhren and Donielle Prince have been leading efforts to educate our organization about racism, inequity, White privilege, and how PACEs science figures into that. Ingrid’s been leading a series of in-depth webinars for our team that have truly challenged our understanding of where we are and how we got here. It’s been sobering, but one thing that being in this PACEs community offers is that we help each other face not only our individual truths, but our society’s truths, because that’s one of our values. (If you aren’t a member of PACEs Connection, please join by going to PACEsConnection.com.)

“I came up with the idea for the series in response to the controversy concerning Critical Race Theory in schools,” says Cockhren, who is PACEs Connection’s director of communities, “or basically the reluctance to discuss America’s true history.” When she suggested that we host a series of webinars on historical trauma in six different regions of the country, the team jumped into action.

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Donald Trump’s ACEs; the mob’s ACEs

Photograph by Craig Ruttle / Redux

As I post this, the U.S. Senate is in the middle of the second trial of former President Donald Trump, after the U.S. House of Representatives impeached him for the second time.

Several people have asked me why I had not written about the events of Wednesday, January 6, 2021, sooner — a traumatizing day that will be seared in our long history of trauma in this country. Basically, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, because this isn’t over.

I was also listening to what people in the ACEs movement were saying about the insurrection on January 6. We were all pretty much saying the same things that most people in the nation and the world were saying. First, about the violence, which was horrendous, terrifying, unreal. And then further disbelief, as well as rage, about why a mob of mostly White rioters was let loose on the U.S. Capitol, the people’s house, for six hours without consequences when just months before Black Lives Matter protestors who were practicing their First Amendment rights and were not violent, were tear-gassed, beaten, and arrested.

Below, I’m re-posting an article published last July about how former President Trump’s childhood adversity shaped his life, based on an amazing book by his niece, Mary Trump. The insurrection of January 6 demonstrated how much he has shaped ours in his run-away four-year screeching, careening metaphorical train wreck. Many people warned of this; Mary Trump could see it coming. At the root of all his actions over the last decades, and especially during his presidency, is his childhood trauma.

Adverse childhood experiences are also at the root of the behavior of people in the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol. People who are happy and healthy, who have a promising future for themselves and their children — i.e., those that have had enough positive childhood experiences to counter the inevitable adverse childhood experiences — those people don’t storm buildings, don’t erect posts with a noose, don’t threaten the Vice-President of the United States and the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives with a guillotine or hanging.

But we’re stuck in a generational escalation of ACEs. Idaho just did an ACE study and found that an astonishing 23 percent of adults, who are overwhelmingly White, have an ACE score of 4 or more. The original ACE Study showed 12 percent of adults with ACEs. Too many ACEs lead to substantial violence, being a victim of violence, chronic disease and mental illness (more information in the article below). People who have an overabundance of ACEs live out their lives in a number of predictable ways: They endure lives of depression, over-achieving, extreme anger, and/or anxiety. People who use anger to cope with their ACEs will latch onto anything that satisfies the craving for hate, including racism, hate groups, misogyny, etc., just as opiates satisfy the craving for relief from depression and anxiety. Fueling their hate is the belief that the world is a dangerous place, based on the traumatic experiences seared into their tiny bodies and brains when they were babies.

On January 6, 2021, most White people had yet another awakening (after George Floyd last year). Most Blacks and Native Americans did not, because they already knew that this country was not a safe place. They have already experienced this violence, for centuries. Those of us who didn’t understand what Donald Trump represented now realize that we have a very long way to go to create a nation of communities that are self-healing.

At ACEs Connection, and in the ACEs movement, we’re in this for the long haul. We know it will take a long time for the country as a whole to heal. I hope we’ve made a strong start. I hope our efforts come in time…to ameliorate the hurt in this country, to have enough individual and community resilience to survive, and perhaps even thrive, during these next decades of climate change.

Trump’s story is a cautionary tale for all of us. For many people, the January 6 insurrection put the last four years into a different and dangerous light. Ahhh, hindsight. But the basic rule is: Hurt people hurt people, no matter how much or little money or prestige they have. Without significant intervention and healing, people who have significant childhood adversity — and little of the necessary nurturing required as babies and toddlers to grow into healthy adults — are incapable of change. That’s why Mary Trump kept saying her uncle would remain on his destructive path. I hope we put the knowledge to good use in future elections.

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Bad news-good news: Each additional ACE increases opioid relapse rate by 17%; each ACE-informed treatment visit reduces it by 2%

Aopioids2Photo by Ian Sheddan via Flickr Creative Commons
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It’s no surprise that serious childhood trauma can lead people to use opioids. In the absence of healthy alternatives and an understanding of how experiences — such as living with a parent who’s alcoholic or depressed, divorce, and being constantly yelled at when you’re a kid — can make your adult life miserable, opioids help many people cope with chronic depression, extreme anxiety and hopelessness.

But a new study has shown the significance of ACEs and ACEs-science-informed treatment: Each additional type of adverse childhood experience increases a person’s risk of relapse during medication-assisted opioid treatment by a whopping 17 percent. And each visit to a clinic that integrates trauma-informed practices based on ACEs science reduced the relapse rate by two percent, which can carry a person perhaps not to zero, but to a minimal risk of relapse.

“This research clearly shows the lasting impact that ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) can have,” says Dr. Karen Derefinko, lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and director of the National Center for Research of the Addiction Medicine Foundation. “I think it’s the first research to connect ACEs to relapse.”

Researchers from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the University of Memphis also found that more than half (54%) of people in a rural Tennessee opioid clinic relapsed, and the highest relapse rate was on the first visit. Almost half of the 87 people who participated in the study had an ACE score of four or higher — the average was 3.5, which is remarkably high. The study, “Adverse childhood experiences predict opioid relapse during treatment among rural adults”, appears in the September 2019 issue of the journal, Addictive Behaviors, and was published online last week.

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Dr. Karen Derefinko

“This study will help practitioners understand the importance of providing trauma-informed treatment,” says Derefinko. “Because of the stigma associated with drug use, it’s hindered health care workers’ understanding of why people use drugs and has led to an assumption that they’re bad people. This shows that trauma-informed care and providing resources does impact how well people can do. It’s also validating for patients and gives them a lot of hope.”

 

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The myth of motive in mass shootings

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Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas Morning News

Almost the first thing you hear out of the mouths of police after a mass shooting is: “We’re looking for a motive.”

In Gilroy, CA, the FBI is investigating the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival as domestic terrorism. In El Paso, TX, police are describing the shooting as a possible hate crime and act of domestic terrorism, and focusing on the manifesto written by the shooter. Police in Dayton, OH, are still looking for a motive for why 24-year-old Connor Betts murdered nine people in 30 seconds.

But if we want to prevent shootings, asking about motive will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question. Police might feel as if they have an explanation for why 19-year-old Santino William Legan murdered three people, and why 21-year-old Patrick Crusius murdered 22 people. But motives don’t explain the roots of why those three young men, or any other mass shooters or bombers, foreign or domestic, start their journey as innocent babies and end up on a road to killing people. And in those roots, are our solutions.

If you use the lens of the science of adverse childhood experiences, the answer reveals itself, and usually pretty quickly.

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Talking ACEs and building resilience in prison

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They’re the forgotten, the 2.3 million people in US prisons. The overwhelming majority of them have experienced significant childhood trauma. Before you click out of here, this isn’t another boo-hoo story, as some of you might describe it, about the dismal state of our corrections system, for inmates and guards alike. (Oh, yes, it is profoundly dismal.) This is a story about how one tiny part of it isn’t so dismal, and actually addresses head-on the fact that most (91 percent) of the approximately 2.3 million prisoners will finish their sentences and go home. To your neighborhood. So….wouldn’t you want the prisons to help these guys and gals so that they, and by definition, we, come out happier and more well-adjusted than when they went in?

Well, yea-uh.

Ok. Just in case you glossed over it, let’s go back to that sentence about childhood trauma. It is precisely why the 2,300 inmates at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash., ended up there. Over the last 20 years some profound, intense research revealed that people who have a lot of childhood adversity have seven times the risk of becoming an alcoholic, 12 times the risk of attempted suicide, twice the risk of cancer and heart attacks. They’re more violent, more likely to be victims of violence, have more broken bones, more marriages, and use prescription drugs more often than people who have no childhood adversity. And those are just the few drops in the bucket of how childhood trauma affects people’s lives.

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Those who separate immigrant children from parents might as well be beating them with truncheons

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Central American asylum seekers, including a Honduran girl, 2, and her mother, are taken into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border in June in McAllen, Texas.

They all agree. Physicians for Human Rights. American Medical Association. American Academy of Pediatrics. American Psychiatric Association. National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners. 

Separating children from their parents or caregivers hurts children. Between April 19 and May 31, nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents. As Celeste Fremon reported in WitnessLa,  that number has now passed 2,300 children (and is increasing by more than 60/day), with another 11,000 locked up in everything from large cages to a converted Walmart. 

“To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma,” says a petition signed by more than 9,000 mental health professionals and 172 organizations.

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ACEs science can prevent school shootings, but first people have to learn about ACEs science

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David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks at a rally calling for more gun control. Photo by Jonathan Drake / Reuters

After 17 people, mostly teens, were shot and killed by another teen last week in Parkland, FL, what seems to be a real movement is growing, propelled by kids devastated by their friends’ deaths and wanting to prevent such a massacre from ever happening again.

Their rallies and marches and lie-downs probably won’t have much effect in the short-term, as some of the Parkland teens learned as they witnessed — and some of them wept during — today’s lightning vote by state lawmakers along party lines to end debate on an assault weapons ban, which killed any further consideration of the bill in the Florida legislature’s current session.

But their persistence can make a difference in the long run, especially if they — and we — widen this to include the dozens of kids shot on the streets of Chicago or Camden or in other communities every week. We can even broaden the approach to include the 200 people, including many children, who died in Syrian air strikes in the last two days, because the roots and solutions are the same.

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