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Kelly Kosek | Detroit Jewish News

Childhood trauma spurs far-reaching mental and health consequences.

Ronelle Grier Contributing Writer

What is the greatest predictor of health issues such as obesity, smoking, heart disease, depression, alcoholism and other addictions? While genetics and family history may seem the most obvious factors, the answer may come as a surprise: childhood trauma.

The devastating effect of what researchers call Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) was the subject of a recent program featuring the award-winning documentary Resilience. The film chronicles the far-reaching consequences of early trauma and featured programs across the country helping these individuals overcome their challenges.

More than 200 people, including parents, teens, educators and mental health professionals, attended the program held at Friendship Circle of Michigan in West Bloomfield. The film was followed by small facilitator-led group discussions about ways to build resilience and make a positive impact on local young people.

The film is based on an extensive research study spearheaded by Drs. Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti. Although the study was conducted in 1998, its findings have gained greater prominence in recent years.

The documentary discusses how Adverse Childhood Experiences contribute to toxic stress, which can trigger hormones that have long-lasting effects on children’s brains and bodies. This physiological response puts these children and teens at greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time and even early death. According to the research, the life spans of people who suffered multiple ACEs were 20 years shorter than the average for the general population.

Before the film was shown, participants were asked to fill out the standard ACE questionnaire, answering yes or no to 10 situations considered Adverse Childhood Experiences: emotional, physical and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; parents divorced or separated; mother treated violently; substance abuse in household; family member with mental illness; and incarcerated household member.

Each yes answer counts as one point. The higher the score, the greater the chance the respondent has or will have serious physical and mental health issues as a result of their early trauma. The research shows the number of adverse experiences, rather than the experiences themselves, determine the extent and severity of the negative outcomes.

According to the film, those with three ACEs were twice as likely to suffer from these issues as someone in the general population. Individuals with four ACEs were 32 times likelier to have problems in school and had a three times greater risk of developing heart disease as adults. Obesity and smoking also had a direct correlation to ACE scores. The documentary says the American Pediatric Association calls ACE “the biggest unaddressed health crisis” in the country today.

Learning Resilience

Researchers featured in the film found resilience is the key to overcoming childhood trauma, and children need stable, caring adults in order to become resilient. One recommendation was that the ACE questionnaire be used as a universal screening tool in doctors’ offices and schools.

Although only about half of the program attendees chose to fill out the questionnaire, their scores were higher than the general population, with 14 percent reporting five or more ACEs.

“The body remembers (trauma),” said Sara Kraft, a school social worker who recently started a private practice for children and parents. “I wanted to help children become more resilient, and now I want to help the parents become more resilient, too.”

Jodie Jacobs of Farmington Hills attended the program to gain knowledge she could use in her roles as a parent and a licensed social worker.

“Trauma doesn’t discriminate,” said Jacobs, “but this gives me hope for any community … if you put the right resources together …”

Through his work with teens in crisis, Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, teen director for Friendship Circle of Michigan, said, “We need to approach this based on the idea that this is a reality, and then we will start utilizing solution-based approaches.”

The program was sponsored by Friendship Circle’s UMatter, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit mental health initiative “We Need to Talk,” Kadima and Jewish Family Service.

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