Changing the Future of Adverse Childhood Experiences

Applying a Population Health Approach to Adverse Childhood Experiences

 

Adverse Childhood Experiences are one of our most important Population Health issues due to their long lasting impact on the physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing of a person and indeed the wider community. It is therefore really important that we apply a ‘population health’ approach in our thinking about them so that we can begin to transform the future together. This is an area of great complexity with several contributing factors and will take significant partnership across all levels of government, public bodies, organisations and communities to bring about a lasting change. There are things we can do immediately and things that will take longer, but with a growing awareness of just what a significant impact ACEs are having on our society, we must act together to do something now. Here in Morecambe Bay, we have developed a way of thinking about Population Health in what we call our ‘Pentagon Approach’. It can be applied to ACEs as a helpful framework for thinking about how we begin to turn this tide and cut out this cancer from our society and feeds into the already great work being done across Lancashire and South Cumbria, lead by Dr Arif Rajpura and Dr Helen Lowey, who have spearheaded so much!

 

Prevent

 

When we examine the list of things that pertain to ACEs (see previous https://reimagininghealth.com/facing-our-past-finding-a-better-future/ blog), it is easy to feel overwhelmed and put it into the ‘too hard to do’ box. This is no longer an option for us. We must begin to think radically at a societal level about how we prevent ACEs from happening in the first place (recognising that some ACEs are more possible to prevent than others). Prevention will entail a mixture of community grass-roots initiatives, changes in policy and a re-prioritisation of commissioning decisions for us to make a difference together. Here are some practical suggestions:

 

  • The first step is most certainly to break down the taboo of the subject and continue to raise awareness of just how common ACEs are and how utterly devastating they are for human flourishing. ACE aware training is therefore vital as part of all statutory safeguarding training.
  • We have to tackle health inequality and inequality in our society. ACEs, although common across the social spectrum are more common in areas of poverty. Although we now have more people in work, many people are not being paid a living wage, work settings are not necessarily healthy and child poverty has actually increased over the last 5 years in our most deprived areas https://www.jrf.org.uk/blog/poverty-taking-hold-families-what-can-we-do.
  • Parenting Classes should be introduced at High School in Personal and Social Education Classes to help the next generation think about what it would mean to be a good parent. These should also form an important part of antenatal and post-natal care, with further classes available in the community for each stage of a child’s development. Extra support is needed for the parents of children with special developmental or educational needs due to the increased stress levels involved.
  • There needs to be a particular focus on fatherhood and encouraging young men to think about what it means to father children. Recent papers have demonstrated just how important the role of a father can be (positive or negative) in a child’s life and it is not acceptable for the parenting role to fall solely to the mother. www.eani.org.uk/_resources/assets/attachment/full/0/55028.pdf
  • We have much to learn from the ‘recovery community’ about how to work effectively with families caught in cycles of addiction from alcohol or drugs. Finding a more positive approach to keeping families together whilst helping those caught in addictive behaviour to take responsibility for their parenting or learn more positive styles of parenting, whilst helping to build support and resilience for the children involved is really important.
  • We must ensure that our social services are adequately funded and that there is continuity and consistency in the people working with any given family, especially around the area of mental health. Relationships are absolutely key in bringing supportive change and we must breathe this back into our welfare state.
  • Hilary Cottam writes powerfully in her book, Radical Help that we must foster the capabilities of local communities, making local connections and “above all, relationships”. As Cottam states, “The welfare state is incapable of ‘fixing’ this, but it has an important role to play. It can catch us when we fall, but it cannot give us flight.
  • Sex education in schools needs to be more open and honest about the realities of paedophilia and developing sexual desire. Elizabeth Letourneau argues powerfully that paedophilia is preventable not inevitable. We must break open this taboo and start talking to our teenagers about it. (https://www.tedmed.com/talks/show?id=620399&utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss)

 

Detect

 

If we want to make a real difference to ACEs and their impact on society, we need to be willing to talk about them. We can’t detect something we’re not looking for. Therefore as our awareness levels rise of the pandemic reality of ACEs, we need to develop ways of asking questions that will enable children or people to ‘tell their story’ and uncover things which may be happening to them or may have happened to them which may be deeply painful, or of which they may have memories which are difficult to access. Again, our approach needs to be multi-level across many areas of expertise. We need to be willing to think the unthinkable and create environments in which children can talk about their reality. For children in particular, this may need to involve the use of play or art therapy.

 

  • Whole school culture change is vital, with a high level of prioritisation from the school leadership team is needed to ensure this becomes everybody’s business.
  • School teachers and teaching assistants need to be given specific training, as part of their ‘safeguarding’ development about how to recognise when a child may be experiencing an ACE and how to enable them to talk about it in a non-coercive, non-judgmental way.
  • Police and social services need training in recognising the signs of ACEs in any home they go into. For example, in the case of a drug-related death, how much consideration is currently given to the children of the family involved, and how much information is shared with the child’s school so that a proactive, pastoral approach can be taken. There are good examples around England where this is now beginning to happen. (http://www.eelga.gov.uk/documents/conferences/2017/20%20march%202017%20safer%20communities/barbara_paterson_ppt.pdf)

 

For adults, we need to recognise where ACEs might have played a part in a person’s physical or mental health condition (remember the stark statistics in the previous blog on this subject). Therefore we need to develop tools and techniques to help people open up about their story and perhaps for clinicians to learn how to take a ‘trauma history’.

 

  • Clinical staff working in healthcare need to be given REACh training (routine enquiry about adverse childhood experiences – Prof Warren Larkin) as part of their ongoing Continuous Professional Development (CPD). In busy clinics it is easier to focus on the symptoms a person has, rather than do a deeper dive into what might be the cause of the symptoms being experienced. A wise man once said to me, “You have to deal with the root and not the fruit”. Learning to ask open questions like “tell me a bit about what has happened to you” rather than “what is wrong with you”, can open up the opportunity for people to share difficult things about their childhood, which may be profoundly affecting their physical or mental health well into adulthood. There is a concern that opening up such a conversation might lead to much more work on the part of the clinician, but studies have shown that simply by giving someone space to talk about ACEs they have experienced, they will subsequently reduce their use of GPs by over 30% and their use of the ED by 11%.
  • We can ask each other. This issue is too far reaching to be left to professionals. If simply by talking about our past experiences, we can realise that we are not alone, we are not freaks and we do not have to become ‘abusers’ ourselves, then we can learn to help to heal one another in society. Caring enough to have a cup of tea with a friend and really learn about each other’s life story can be an utterly healing and transformational experience. When we are listened to by someone with kind and fascinated, compassionate eye, we can find incredible healing and restoration. One very helpful process, ned by the ‘more to life’ team is about processing life-shocks. Sophie Sabbage has written a really helpful book on this, called ‘Lifeshocks’).

 

Protect

 

When a child is caught in a situation in which they are experiencing one or more ACE, we must be vigilant and act on their behalf to intervene and bring them and their family help. When an adult has disclosed that they have been through one or more ACE as a child, we must enable them to be able to process this and not let them feel any sense of shame or judgement.

 

  • We need to ensure school teachers are more naturally prone to thinking that ‘naughty’ or ‘difficult’ children are actually highly likely to be in a state of hyper vigilance due to stressful things they are experiencing at home. Expecting them to ‘focus, behave and get on with it’, is not only unrealistic, it’s actually unkind. Equally, children who are incredibly shy and easily go unnoticed must not be ignored. Simply recognising that kids might be having a really hard time, giving them space to talk about it with someone skilled, teaching them some resilience and finding a way to work with their parents/carers via the school nurse/social worker could make a lifetime of difference. It is far more important that our kids leave school knowing they are loved, with a real sense of self-esteem and belonging than with good SATS scores or GCSEs. The academic stuff can come later if necessary and we need to get far better at accepting this. A child’s health and wellbeing carries far more importance than any academic outcomes and Ofsted needs to find a way to recognise this officially. In other words, we need to create compassionate schools and try to ensure that school itself does not become an adverse childhood experience for those already living in the midst of trauma.
  • In North Lancashire, we have created a hub and spoke model to enable schools to be supportive to one another and offer advice when complex safeguarding issues are arising. So, when a teacher knows that they need to get a child some help, they can access timely advice with a real sense of support as they act to ensure a child is safe. These hubs and spokes need to be properly connected to a multidisciplinary team, who can help them act in accordance with best safeguarding practice. This MDT needs to incorporate the police, social services, the local health centre (for whichever member of staff is most appropriate) and the child and adolescent mental health team.
  • For adults who disclose that they have experienced an ACE, appropriate initial follow up should be offered and a suicide risk assessment should be carried out.

 

Manage

 

For children/Young People, the management will depend on the age of the child and must be tailored according to a) the level of risk involved and b) the needs of the child/young person involved. Some of the options include:

 

  • In severe cases the child/YP must be removed from the dangerous situation and brought under the care of the state, until it is clear who would be the best person to look after the child/YP
  • Adopting the whole family into a fostering scenario, to help the parents learn appropriate skills whilst keeping the family together, where possible.
  • EmBRACE (Sue Irwin) training for safeguarding leads and head teachers in each school, enabling children/YP to learn emotional resilience in the context of difficult circumstances.
  • Art/play therapy to enable the child to process the difficulties they have been facing.

 

For adults who disclose that they have experienced ACEs, many will find that simply by talking about them, they are able to process the trauma and find significant healing in this process alone. However, some will need more help, depending on the physical or mental health sequelae of the trauma experienced. Thus may include:

 

  • Psychological support in dealing with the physical symptoms of trauma
  • Targeted psychological therapies, e.g. CBT or EMDR to help with the consequences of things like PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
  • Medication to help alleviate what can be debilitating symptoms, e.g. anti-depressants
  • Targeted lifestyle changes around relaxation, sleep, eating well and being active
  • Help with any addictive behaviours, e.g. alcohol, drugs, pornography, food

 

Recover

 

Again, this will follow on from whatever management is needed in the ‘healing phase’ to enable more long term recovery. There are many things which may be needed, especially as the process of recovery is not always straightforward. These may include:

 

  • The 12 step programme, or something similar in walking free from any addiction.
  • Revisiting psychological or other therapeutic support
  • Walking through a process of forgiveness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ-j7NuhDEY&list=PLEWM0B0r7I-BXq6_wO4sL0qIwzTWwn_vx&index=9&t=0s, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtexaUCBl5k&list=PLEWM0B0r7I-BXq6_wO4sL0qIwzTWwn_vx&index=9)
  • We may need to help children go through development phases, which they have missed, at a later stage than usual, e.g. some children will need much more holding, cuddling and eye contact if they have been victims of significant neglect.
  • Compassionate school environments to help children and young people catch-up on any work missed, in a way they can cope with and reintegrate into the classroom setting where possible, but with head teacher discretion around sitting exams.

 

To complete the cycle, those who have walked through a journey of recovery are then able, if they would like to, to help others and form part of the growing network of people involved in this holistic approach to how we tackle ACEs in our society.

 

Hopefully this is a helpful framework to think as widely and holistically as possible. There is much great work going on around ACEs now and we must develop a community of learning and practice as we look to transform society together. We can’t do this alone, but together we can!

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Facing Our Past, Finding a Better Future – Adverse Childhood Experiences

This week I had the privilege of listening to Prof Warren Larkin, advisor to the Department of Health on Adverse Childhood Experiences. This is something I’ve written about on this blog before and Warren has made me more determined than ever to keep talking about this profoundly important issue. This blog draws on his wisdom and learning.

I believe that Adverse Childhood Experiences are our most important Public Health issue. So I want to be really clear about what they are, how and why they affect us so deeply, where we can find help if we’ve been affected by them and how together we can change the future, by preventing them.

 

What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

 

• Physical abuse
• Sexual Abuse
• Emotional Abuse
• Living with someone who abused drugs
• Living with someone who abused alcohol
• Exposure to domestic violence
• Living with someone who was incarcerated
• Living with someone with serious mental illness
• Parental loss through divorce, death or abandonment

 

How Common Are They?

 

The answer is – far too common. There have been some really wide ranging studies across the UK and USA into the numbers of us who have experienced ACEs, and it’s not just in our “most deprived communities” but in predominantly white, middle class areas where we see the stark statistics. Depending on the study you read, between 50 and 65% have experienced at least one ACE. And shockingly 1 in 10 of us have experienced more than 4.

 

How and Why Do They Effect Us?

 

Firstly, they affect us by quantity. The more ACEs we experience, the worse our physical, mental and social health and wellbeing is. If you have experienced one ACE, you have an 86% chance of being subject to several. If you experience more than 4, your health and wellbeing is significantly affected. If you experience more than 6 then you have a 46 times higher chance of becoming an IV drug abuser, a 35 times higher chance of committing suicide and an overall 20 year decrease in life expectancy.

 

Secondly, the toxic stress levels significantly change the way in which our brains grow and function. This has a profound impact on our day to day functioning. ACEs are a massive cause of absenteeism from work, high cost to the health and social care system and highly predictive of time behind bars. That is why so many of us have complex relationships with things like food. Losing weight, for example, is not as straight forward as eating less, exercising more or ending up with a gastric band. Did you know that suicide rates are massively increased after bariatric surgery? By removing the ability to eat, the very thing that takes away or comforts the pain, we expose the underlying issue, but provide no healing into that void.

 

Thirdly, our bodies literally keep the score of the negative experiences. So, we become more likely to develop chronic pain, inflammatory conditions, heart disease, cancer and mental health issues.

 

Fourthly, the toxic stress actually alters the way our DNA works and therefore changes the genetic information that we pass onto future generations. As an example, domestic violence in pregnancy is predictive of child developmental issues and offspring of the survivors of the holocaust or genocide are far more likely to develop chronic anxiety. This highlights just how important our family history really is.

 

Fifthly, there are proven things we can do a) to help our brains learn how to cope in the midst of really difficult circumstances (resilience) and b) therapeutic interventions that can genuinely heal us.

 

Where Can We Find Help?

 

Here’s the thing – this is where the rubber hits the road.

 

Many of us, who have experienced difficult things in childhood/adolescence never talk about them. Sometimes that’s because we can’t remember the experiences – they happen to us before our memories fully form. But perhaps more frequently we bury them because we don’t want to talk about the deeply painful memories, we don’t know how to or we’re worried about what might happen to us, or the people who caused us the pain if we do. And how do you start a conversation like that anyway? What? Are you going to just blurt it out to someone? And what on earth will you do if you just start crying in the middle of a restaurant when you talk to your girlfriend/boyfriend about what happened to you? And what about all those complicated associated feelings of shame, guilt, fear, thoughts of rejection? So…..we keep the lid on….even though it’s to our own detriment because we don’t know how to bring it into the open.

 

And here in lies the starting place. It’s vital that we learn this in the world of health and social care, but actually we all need to hear this incredible truth. Various studies have shown that it takes 9-16 years for people to be able to talk about trauma/abuse they experienced, but most never do. Fraser and Read found that in their patients struggling with mental health issues, only 8% of them volunteered that they had experienced ACEs. However, when they were actually asked about this, 82% then talked about ACEs they had experienced. So? So, we find it almost impossible to talk about, but when someone asks us about what we have lived through, it takes the lid off the box, peels the sticky plaster off the deep wound and allows us to begin talking about our pain. And here’s something really remarkable……Felitti and Andra found in a study of 140000 people that simply by routinely asking all patients about ACEs, they saw a 35% decrease in visits to the GP and an 11% reduction in use of the Emergency Department!

 

What does that mean? It means that giving someone the chance to talk about their journey, what they have been through, breaking the cycle of shame, fear and rejection is, in and of itself, deeply healing! Knowing that you’re not a freak, knowing that it wasn’t your fault, knowing that it doesn’t mean that you yourself will become an abuser/alcoholic/poor parent and many more realisations can make a significant difference to a person’s wellbeing. Maybe it doesn’t have to wait for a GP’s surgery or a counsellor’s chair. Maybe, just maybe if we all care enough to ask each other deeper and more caring questions we can help to heal each other. I know this is true of my own journey and that of many of my friends.

 

But let’s not be naive. For some of us, the experiences we have had are so horrific that we are stuck in a moment and we can’t get out of it. And this is where good therapy really comes in. I wonder if we invested more in therapy and less in drugs to numb our pain, how much more healed we might be – perhaps more expensive in the short term, but overall the cost is far less, both for the individual and society as a whole. There is help available and it can take many forms. EMDR, Trauma Focussed-CBT, Bereavement Counselling and even things like working through a forgiveness process. Unfortunately, many of the waiting lists are very long, and private options are way too expensive for most people to afford.

 

So, Can We Change The Future?

 

You know that I believe together we can! But it’s not going to be easy, especially not in the context of our floundering social services, restrictive school curriculums, reduction in numbers of health visitors and school nurses, eye watering cuts to public health budgets and significantly stretched CAMHS and Adult Mental Health Teams. And I think we have to very real and honest about that, because if this is such a massive issue in our society (and the data and evidence is astounding) then we need, as Warren Larkin so eloquently argues, genuine commitment from leaders and organisations to shift towards a culture of learning and collaboration to bring about change.

 

Here are some things we need to do together:

 

1) Own up to what a massive issue this is.

2) We need to learn how to ask our friends better questions and care enough to listen to each other’s experiences and journeys because it is really hard to know how to start talking about ACEs, but is more possible when someone bothers to ask!

3) We need to recognise that by bottling things up, we do further harm to ourselves. Perhaps some of our complex addictive patterns of behaviour, our mental health issues, our physical pain and symptoms might well be linked to the ACEs we have experienced. So maybe we don’t need a life on painkillers, cigarettes or with a complex addictive behaviour patterns. Maybe we can find a way to deeper healing.

4) In health and social care, we need to adopt REACh (routine enquiry about adversity in childhood) – we need to change the way we take histories from patients and ask better questions. Remember that even by asking, it doesn’t open up scary and messy consultations that we don’t have time for, actually it opens up a therapeutic space which can massively alter how a person goes on to use the health service in the future.

5) We need to ensure schools are more vigilant to thinking that ‘naughty’ or ‘difficult’ children are actually highly likely to be in a state of hyper vigilance due to stressful things they are experiencing at home. Expecting them to ‘focus, behave and get on with it’, is not only unrealistic, it’s actually unkind. Simply recognising that kids might be having a really hard time, giving them space to talk about it with someone skilled, teaching them some resilience and finding a way to work with their parents/carers via the school nurse/social worker could make a lifetime of difference. It is far more important that our kids leave school knowing they are loved, with a real sense of self-esteem and belonging than with good SATS scores or GCSEs. The academic stuff can come later if necessary and we need to get far better at accepting this.

6) Parenting classes should not just be for the well-motivated or struggling. They should be for all of us – a routine part of antenatal care and alongside our children’s education and include help in dealing with previous ACEs, so they are not repeated for the next generation. Prevention is possible. And that means we need to learn to be a whole lot less judgemental and a great deal more open, honest, vulnerable and restorative with each other. One of my best memories of growing up, was going to a “foster home” for families that my mum used to work with and seeing parents being given the chance to learn how to love their kids, rather than have them taken off them. I know sometimes there is no choice, but helping people learn how to be family and to love and cherish their children is a really beautiful thing. When there has been generational abuse, it is is also of the upmost importance. I’m not saying that a child should never be removed, but we can hardly say that our care system is a rip-roaring success story.

7) We need to find a way of working with men and women in our prisons that enables them to find a way to healing and restoration, not retribution for what are often extremely complex stories.

8) We must learn from best practice around the world. For example, did you know that the vast majority of paediphiles begin offending at the age of 14?! Most of them do not go on to become prolific offenders, but the damage caused to the child they abuse is obviously significant. There is some amazing work now going on in Pennsylvania which has shown that you can actually prevent young men from becoming offenders in the first place. Simply by doing some better sex education, explaining to boys about testosterone, the urges they are having and who it is appropriate to perform sexual acts with; alongside creating a really safe space where they can come and talk about feelings they are having (a bit like AA – with no ridicule or judgement) – data shows that you can decrease the incidence of child sexual abuse. We have to learn from this kind of approach and find a better way of talking about difficult issues. Prevention IS possible!

9) We need to find a way to fund more psychological therapies and become much less reliant on drugs to numb the pain with the associated colossal bill paid to Big Pharma.

 

 

This is an area I am really passionate about. I am committing to keep this conversation alive, to ensure that we make a shift in our organisations towards a REACh approach, to find a deeper and more effective partnership with colleagues in education, social services and the police and to create space for more training and awareness for all our staff teams. I know how painful this conversation is, but I also know how utterly damaging it will be if we don’t change the future and prevent this from being a perpetual story through the generations. It is time for the hearts of the elders to turn to the children. Together we can reimagine the future. Together we can.

 

 

Here is a really helpful film:

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