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!

Share This:

Share

Our Nation’s Biggest Public Health Problem

The subject of this blog is sensitive and difficult. It may stir up some difficult issues or memories for you, as you read. If this happens, then please take time to seek the help you need. I believe this blog and ones to follow might be some of the most important I have written to date.

 

UnknownI am currently reading a phenomenal book, sent to me in the post, by a dear friend of mine, who is a trained counsellor and knowing the work I do, felt that I should read it also. The book is called “The Body Keeps the Score” by the eminent Psychiatrist, Bessel Van Der Kolk. In my humble opinion, it should be compulsory reading for every person training in any of the clinical specialities, including public health and for those working in education. The book focusses on the detailed research and work done by Van Der Kolk and others at Harvard over the last 30 years in the whole area of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), or “Disorders of Extreme Stress, Not Otherwise Specified” (DESNOS). It is not a part of our vocabulary, unfortunately, because even now, after a huge evidence base and many studies, there still remains no such psychiatric diagnosis. However, it is a hidden epidemic affecting huge numbers of our population and is the root of many of our major public health issues. So what causes this problem and just how wide spread is it? The evidence shows so strongly that the cause of CPTSD or DESNOS is Adverse Childhood Experiences, which we more starkly call Child Abuse.

 

Child abuse falls into four main categories: Physical abuse, Sexual Abuse, Verbal Abuse and Emotional abuse – usually in the form of neglect. 10% of children suffer regular verbal abuse. 25% suffer regular physical abuse. 28% of women and 16% of men have suffered sexual abuse. 16% regularly watch domestic violence. 87% of all those who suffer one type of abuse, are also abused in other ways. Each of these forms of abuseUnknown lead to major health problems later in life and studies are showing that it is not just mental health issues (many of which lead to inappropriate diagnoses like Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar Disorder and ineffective treatments) but also major physical health problems. Those who have been abused are twice as likely than others to develop cancer and four times as likely to have emphysema. The more difficult a person’s experiences, the higher the chance of developing heart, liver or lung disease at an early earlier age with much higher chances of taking more health risks with smoking, becoming overweight or having multiple sexual partners. There is good evidence to suggest a link with autoimmune diseases, such a lupus, and other complex conditions like chronic pain, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. The body cannot be separated from the mind and literally keeps the score of the internalised turmoil. So, even if the abuse happens before memories are formed, or our minds manage to forget or block out what has happened, the body simply cannot forget and sometime and in someway, the damage will show itself. Studies show that the overall cost of this appalling reality far exceed those of cancer or heart disease. In fact, eradicating child abuse would cut depression rates by over 50%, alcoholism by 66% and suicide, IV drug use and domestic violence by 75%. Antidepressants and antipsychotics are now some of our largest prescribing costs. We know this, but are doing very little about it. Perhaps it feels too big. Perhaps we don’t want to face the demons involved. Instead, we are numbing the problem, trying desperately to get people to be just functional enough to keep on serving the needs of our economic system, but we are not facing up to or dealing with this horrific problem, nor its true cost.

 

What can be done in the face of such evil? How can we develop aimages culture of compassion and restorative justice in which we can find a new way through for humanity? It isn’t getting any better. It is just as widespread and far reaching in its consequences as it was a generation ago. Is it possible for us to face up to the startling reality we face? Van der Kolk offers much hope, but it is not within the gift of the health service and social services to tackle this alone. If we are to take this issue seriously, we must embrace what Bessel refers to (at the end of chapter 2) as four fundamental truths:

 

  1. Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring wellbeing.
  2. Language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know and to find a common sense of meaning.
  3. We have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through simple activities such as breathing, moving and touching – (learning to be present in our own bodies is a vital way of separating out the memories of the past which can overwhelm us at times).
  4. We can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.

images-1People can be healed of trauma. We need this at both an individual and corporate level. We have become so focussed on saving money, on quick fixes to ensure the NHS and Social Care System can survive, but we are ignoring the root cause of many of our ill health issues. If we are willing to face up to the truth of child abuse in our society and its long lasting and far reaching impact on overall health and wellbeing, then we might just be able to find a way through to healing and restoration of what has become an extremely broken society. In the blogs that follow, I will look at some of the ways we might find a way through this crisis of epidemic proportions. One thing we must face straight away is that we are spending our resources in the wrong places and are focussing our attention in the wrong areas. We must protect our children and help people learn how to be good parents. We must strengthen our school teachers and sense of community. We must invest in the first five years of life far more than we are doing so currently, especially those key first 12 months of bonding and attachment. Together, if we want to, with love, care, bravery and determination, we can change the future. There is hope. There is healing. Our systems are not yet designed to cope with this, but we must speak the unspeakable, break the silence and face up to the truth. The truth will set us free and enable us to develop the kind of wellbeing that every human being should be able to live within.

 

 

 

Share This:

Share