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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Building a Culture of Kindness in the NHS

My morning surgery began today with a patient of mine, who works as  Health Care Assistant (or Band 3) in our local acute hospital trust. As we find across the board in the NHS right now, there are pressures in her department with under-staffing and a very high and demanding work load. She started her day in tears, telling me about the sleepless nights, but even more so about the lack of support she is feeling in her work environment. She feels unable to understand why huge fees are paid to find locum consultants, when posts are not covered, but money cannot be found for the absence of staff at her level, when the numbers are down, leading to an increased pressure and low morale.

 

Now, this is not a criticism of the acute trust we partner with every day, because I actually know all too well the situation here, how complex it can be and just how dedicated to caring for staff the leadership of the trust are. However, when we read in the press today about sickness absence for stress among paramedics, and if I were to detail more stories about the number of cases I am currently dealing with as a GP about stress in the workplace for ALL grades of staff in the NHS and social care setting, then we have to face up to the fact that we have a problem. Stress in the workplace and low morale in our teams is not a problem we can afford to ignore. It not only causes high sickness rates, which then increases the pressure on teams, with knock on financial implications to the system; it also causes significant compassion fatigue (i.e. staff are literally less able to care about or for their patients), because they are emotionally overwhelmed, under-resourced and therefore become more numb, disengaged and unkind and this is detrimental to patient care.

 

The problem is actually really complex, but it is, in my opinion, primarily cultural, and particularly affects the lower pay-grades of staff, because they feel and are in fact less able, to influence change. If we do not develop a culture of kindness towards our own teams and have a sea-change within our working environments in terms of how we care for each other, we will only see the problems go from bad to worse. So, how do we create a culture of kindness, a culture of honour, a culture of wellbeing?

 

I would like to suggest six things (all beginning with H – the 6Hs), which are fairly simple, but make a massive difference to how teams function and therefore the morale within those teams:

 

  1. Humanity – First, we must recognise that hierarchy has the inbuilt tendency to de-humanise us. As we get higher in the pyramidal systems in which we work, we can easily lose our humility and compassion towards others as we have to cope with the greater demands from “above us” and if we’re not careful we can turn into slave drivers. Top down, controlling leadership is detrimental to good morale and stifles teams from working effectively.  There is a famous, ancient parable (told in the New Testament) about an unmerciful manager, who owed a huge amount of money to his master/CEO. The CEO called him to account and threatened to fire him. However, he begged for mercy and the master cancelled his debt and gave him a fresh chance. However, this same manager then went and found all the people who owed something to him, and instead of paying forward the mercy he had received, treated his own debtors shamefully, despite their begging and pleading for mercy. When the CEO found out about this, the manager was duly fired. I wonder how often we tolerate ‘bullying’ by managers, because they ‘run a tight ship’, without calculating the cost of this style of management on our teams and the patients we serve? Changing culture is hard. Even if the CEO sets a good culture, any one of us can bring a negative influence in the area we work. We have to make a conscious choice to keep our kindness switched on. As we climb the ladder of responsibility, we must continue to act with humanity. We must also remember that it works the other way round – we can start dehumanising those in leadership positions ‘above us’, or those who work in different teams. We make terribly unfair assumptions about people all the time. A little bit of understanding, kindness and compassion goes a HUGE way in treating each other with kindness instead of suspicion.
  2. Humility – For those in leadership, there can be a tendency to forget that when we were in in ‘lower’ positions, we often felt the same low morale and pressure from those ‘above us’. Leadership requires that we keep our love and compassion switched on towards those who we now lead. This means we must really learn to listen, and that means having the humility to recognise where we have been getting it wrong. If we are not prepared to change, then we are not really listening. It takes courage to create a culture in which we can receiving a challenge from those in our team and be able to make a change and not just use our position to squash the person who dared to speak out. It takes even more guts to admit where we have been wrong, say sorry and move forward differently.
  3. Help – one of the very worst things that can happen in any team dynamic is when we hear the words ‘it’s not my job’. I hear it so often and it makes me sad! We must never think we are above any task – whether that is cleaning up a mess, wiping a patient’s bum or picking up some litter. We must simply help each other out. But we also need the humility to admit when we are struggling and actually ask for help. We encounter terrible and unspeakable trauma at times, or may simply be going through tough personal circumstances. Sometimes, we need the humility to recognise where we are not coping, where we are struggling, when we’re not functioning and ask for help. And when we ask for help we need to have the confidence that we will encounter the humanity of those around us to help us at our time of need.
  4. Honour – Sometimes a situation may not be able to change, but in these situations the very worst thing leaders can do is close ranks, shut communication down and raise the levels of demand. No, vulnerability, openness and honesty, sharing the reality of the situation and communicating clearly why things cannot change currently at least allows the team to pull together and face the situation as one. However, there must be a very clear challenge here – Yanis Varoufakis puts it so well in his book “And The Weak Suffer What they Must” – we have to remember just how crippling powerlessness can be. Like my patient this morning, she has no access to the ‘powers’ or to the ‘purse strings’. She cannot up and leave, she simply can’t afford to, and so she works under huge pressure for very little pay, powerless to enact change, other than to put in place her own boundaries. A cultural shift towards a culture of kindness is to ensure that those with the least ‘honour’ are treated the most honourably. Leadership is about being able to take the hit, not self-protectionism at the cost of ones team. It is absolutely amazing just how far the words ‘Thank You’ can go, to keeping this sense of honour alive.
  5. Health – (by health, I mean wellbeing in its widest sense) – we have to actually care for the people around us. We have developed a culture in the NHS and social care where we will do all we can to care for our patients/clients, but will break the backs of ourselves or our teams in the process, which is actually entirely self-defeating! It is impossible to care for others well, when you are feeling exhausted and broken! I have said it on this blog before and I will say it many times again: we have to develop a sense of the health and wellbeing of the people in our teams. We need time in the craziness and business of each day to stop the mad rushing, be still and take notice/be mindful/be heartful. We all need time to get up off our chairs and stretch and be more active – #runamile every day (it only takes 15 minutes). We need time to connect with each other (do we really take time to know the people we spend an inordinate amount of time with and alongside and check they are actually doing OK?), to eat well, stay hydrated and keep learning, so we don’t feel overwhelmed. Building these as an absolute priority into our daily work routines is vital, especially as pressures increase. The tendency is that when the going gets tough, our health gets significantly worse. We must learn to protect this in the midst of our business, or we will suffer the consequences in multiple ways.
  6. Hope – there is an ancient proverb that says: “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but hope coming is a tree of life.”  Hopelessness takes root when we feel that nothing can ever change and we feel powerless to influence anything. Hope is born when we develop ways of working in which teams can work together on solutions to the problems they are encountering, rather than being dictated to from on high in a unrelational way. Hope is about being able to sense that the future is alive with possibility. It is a life line when things are tough, when the tunnel is long and dark – just a little glimpse of light – and then faith builds that together we can get there.

 

Not difficult. Actually pretty straight forward. We don’t need unkindness or low morale in our work places. We don’t want to be suffering with compassion fatigue because we are physically and emotionally drained and running on empty. We really can create the kind of culture we want to see and experience in the NHS and social care – a culture of kindness – sounds nice doesn’t it?! All it takes is for us to remember humanity, humility, help, honour, health and hope.

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