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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Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

So, the NHS is in another winter crisis.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a crisis  as:

1 A time of intense difficulty or danger.
‘the current economic crisis’

Mass noun ‘the monarchy was in crisis’

1.1 A time when a difficult or important decision must be made. As modifier ‘the situation has reached crisis point’
1.2 The turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death.
Origin
Late Middle English (denoting the turning point of a disease): medical Latin, from Greek krisis ‘decision’, from krinein ‘decide’. The general sense ‘decisive point’ dates from the early 17th century.

 

A crisis is still a crisis, even if you see it coming. What is vital, as per Winston Churchill, is that a) we don’t waste this moment, but allow it to be a true tuning point and b) we don’t rush prematurely to actions to try and solve it, but ensure we look deep enough and far enough and then move towards collective steps for an altogether different kind of future.

 

I think there are some difficult and inconvenient truths that we need to face up to together. If we can do so, then we can move beyond sensational news cycles into co-producing something really exciting. Here are my incomplete thoughts about where we might want to think about starting:

 

  1. We need to get some perspective! One of the dangers of believing everything is bad is that we start to believe that the NHS is over. It is not over. It is 70 years old and it is transitioning, but it is not over! In the crisis we find ourselves in, let’s remember why the NHS is such an incredible thing and why its integration with social care is so vital. The Commonwealth Fund rates the NHS as the BEST healthcare system in the world, when it comes to equity, care and accessibility. However, our outcomes are significantly worse than that of our peers – there are some really important reasons for this, which we need to understand better. One of the major reasons is that our goals are so short term, that we cannot bring the long term changes to the health and wellbeing that we need – and this is caused by the way the NHS is run and the nature of our political cycles.
  2. We need to stop the boring, binary, partisan nonsense that is the political boxing match. It really is grow-up time when it comes to our arguments. There are some very different perspectives on why we’re in the crisis we’re in, what we might do about it and how we should go about those things. However, shouting our perspectives ever more loudly, whilst never encountering or deeply listening to the other perspectives in the room make it impossible for us to find an effective 3rd way forward together. We are well versed in the blue vs red options, but let us be honest, please. Neither the reds nor the blues are wholly right, and neither is wholly wrong! It is absolutely OK to hold different perspectives, but the manner of our arguments is astoundingly pathetic. Whilst all this shouting goes on, there are several perspectives that are not being heard, important voices, those of the patient, the carer, the poor etc. We need to stop our reactionary, swing left, swing right steering of this great ship (and that’s not to say a centrist approach is best either!) and learn to have some humility. Humility starts with listening and being willing to change. This is being so beautifully demonstrated by the Rose Castle Foundation and Cambridge University through their work with the vastly differing world views of Conservative Islam, Judaism and Christianity and offers us much learning and hope for the NHS and indeed any other of our deeply held belief systems. Anyone willing to have better conversations and find a way forward?
  3. The maths simply doesn’t add up. We need some honesty.  A few weeks ago, the head of NHSI Jim Mackey, said that by April the NHS will be in around £2.2billion of debt. That is a very conservative estimate. It is a mathematical impossibility to close wards and scale down the size of our hospitals at a time when district nursing numbers have reduced by 28% over the last 5 years and social care is on its knees AND sort out the deficit! We know what the direction of travel needs to be, but the equation is simply unworkable, due to time and workforce pressures.We need to understand the true scale of the problems we’re facing and be real about how much money is going into health and social care spending compared to what is actually needed.
  4. The reason for this is that health and social care funding is becoming more costly and more complex. Our population is growing in size and people are living longer – this is great, on many levels (although we still need a much better conversation about death and why sometimes we keep people alive, when we could allow them to die well and peacefully). However, as we grow older, we develop more health conditions, and social needs, which require more costly treatments and packages of care, which we’re simply not accounting for, especially when we know the predictions of how our population will grow and age over the next 20 years.
  5. We therefore need to have a long term vision of how we want to build the most safe, excellent, effective, equitable, efficient, compassionate and kind health and social care system in the world whilst recognising in order to so, we will HAVE to make some upfront, BIG investments. It is simply impossible to have double austerity on health and social care and then believe we can do the transformational work necessary for the future change we need. Austerity has woken us up to the fact that there are some inefficient ways of working and some things we could definitely do more effectively in partnership. We’ve learnt that now. However, as a philosophy it is now defunct for where we need to go.
  6. This means, we have to put significantly more money into the system now. Once we have done some more work on the vision and plans for the future (the 5 year forward view is too short and although sets us up a good trajectory, is not ambitious enough), we need to ensure there is a sufficient injection of cash (not removal of it) to make this possible. So, we have some options available to us. A) We could increase tax for everyone – something that 67% of our population seem to be willing to pay. B) We could close tax loopholes and ensure that companies like Amazon and Google pay the tax that is owed. C) We could also increase our GDP % spend on health and social care – remember, currently, we have one of the lowest % spend of any of the other OECD nations. Perhaps a combination of all of these things is necessary.
  7. Creating long term health and social care solutions means that we have to put population and public health as the foundation of the system. We know that prevention is better than cure. We know that if we promote health and wellbeing, disease will be far from us. The disinvestment in these areas and the over reliance on a very stretched and struggling community-voluntary-faith sector is a recipe for disaster. There is huge work to be done in deeply listening to and working with our communities to improve the health and wellbeing of everyone, using the best research, evidence and data available to us through our public health bodies in order to make this shift.
  8. This means we need to continue to tackle the wider determinants of health and think radically about these things as being serious public health issues. This is how the city of Glasgow has gone about tackling knife crime and London has much to learn. We need to apply wisdom and learning to things like smoking, sugar, alcohol, pollution, drugs, road traffic accidents, domestic violence, suicide and adverse childhood experiences. We also need to develop a radically generous philosophy to the areas of job creation, housing, land rights and the care of the environment of which we are stewards not lords.
  9. We have to take greater responsibility and care of the health and wellbeing of ourselves and of those around us. It is not possible for us to have a national health and social care system that is sustainable if we think we can live exactly how we want whilst thinking someone else will simply mop up the mess or pay the tab. Our sugar, food and alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, driving, smoking and drug habits are all areas where we do have to take greater responsibility. NHS staff need to lead by example here. They are also areas where government give those lobbies far too much power and where we need better legislation to help bring about change. It is a both/and not an either/or approach.
  10. We need to create a much more shared-care approach with patients, co-partner with patients to enable them to understand the conditions they live with so that they are able to self-manage/self-care more effectively and create community support groups.
  11. We need to use digital solutions to full effect. We need to widen the access to patients having their own online records, the sharing of data across the system and getting savvy with better apps and technology for the benefit of patients and communities.
  12. We need to change our expectations of what we believe our ‘rights’ are in terms of health and social care. As an example, people phone up a GP surgery and want to see a GP. But there are MANY other allied health and social care professionals who may be better placed to sort out the problem. However, a recent survey in Gosport showed that of the people who phoned up wanting to see their GP, only 9% of them actually needed to see their GP and the rest would have been dealt with more effectively by someone else. We need to get used to the fact that we don’t have enough GPs available for everyone to be able to see one every time they would like to, but there are other professionals who are equally able to help. Another example is that everyone wants to safeguard their local hospital and we tend to have a fixed belief that being in hospital when we’re ill is the best place for us. Actually, especially when we’re older we can receive just as good care at home or in a nursing home and being admitted to hospital adds very little benefit. However, in order to have smaller and therefore more affordable hospitals, we really do have to ensure we have the necessary infrastructure and staffing around community nursing, social care and General Practice. Currently this is not the case and it takes time and investment to grow this workforce.
  13. We need ensure we are training and recruiting the right skill mix of people for the right jobs. This means we need to think at least 20 years ahead with the predictive statistics we have available to us and do some proper workforce planning. We’re are far too short sighted. This will take financial investment now, as stated above, but if we get it right, will leave us with a far more effective and efficient living system in the future.
  14. Our medical, nursing and therapeutic school curriculums therefore need to ensure they are training students for the kind of future we need. We need a complete redesign of some of the curriculums and we need to change the way training is done. As part of this, we need to ensure we are raising good human beings, not just good professionals, with values, culture and great communication skills built into all of the process.
  15. We have to redesign the contracts, as unfortunately without this, some of the behaviour changes simply will not happen. The current contracts across health and social care are the very antithesis of what is needed.  This will take some bravery and leadership, but it is time to grasp this nettle. Without this, we will behave perversely because the incentives driving the system and the nature of competition laws are detrimental to the collaborative future we need.
  16. We can only do all of this together. This means our staring place in all of this is to own up to the fact that in all of the above, we simply don’t know. From the place of not knowing, we can ask great questions, bring our bits of expertise to the table and build a jigsaw. There is expertise in national and local government, but certainly not all the answers. There is expertise in the health and social care clinicians, practitioners and managers. There is expertise in our communities and with people who have lived experience of the various complex issues we face. It is only together that we can face the future. Let’s break out of our camps, our deeply entrenched belief systems and find a new way of dancing together. The future belongs to us all. Together we can.

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Health Spending in The North vs The South

Tweet A few months ago, I wrote a couple of blogs exploring the social justice issue that is the vast difference between the health spend in the North, compared to the South.   This week a graph was produced by HM Treasury to show how overall spending has changed across England since 2012. Here is [Continue Reading …]

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Healthy Schools

Tweet Last week, I had the privilege of being at Morecambe Bay Community Primary School. The school is a beacon of hope in this area. I found it extremely moving to walk round, with Siobhan Collingwood, the visionary and big-hearted headteacher and see the incredible love displayed by all staff towards the amazing children there. [Continue Reading …]

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Please get your Flu Jab this Year!

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Who is Responsible for Your Health?

Tweet Who should take responsibility for you health? Sounds like a straightforward question, doesn’t it? But I get so frustrated when complex issues get squashed into simplified, silo-thinking, ready for twitter or media sound bites, or the under-girding of political ideologies. So….just as the economy is not just made up of the interplay between business and [Continue Reading …]

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Building Healthy Towns and Regions

Tweet The other week, I was phoned by a BBC producer to ask if I would take part in a discussion on the Victoria Derbyshire show about how we can build healthy towns. It’s partly due to the work we’re doing here in Morecambe Bay with our communities around being more healthy and well, especially [Continue Reading …]

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The Rules of Engagement

Tweet I am increasingly concerned by the use of the word “customer” to describe people who use the NHS and social services. I hear it often in meetings and it is, in my opinion really dangerous. It is dangerous for 2 reasons: firstly, it assumes that people “buy” services, which they do not (because our [Continue Reading …]

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A 3 Fold Approach to Population Health

Tweet Here in Morecambe Bay, we are trying to develop a strategy around Population Health – by that we mean we want to take a much broader view of the health needs of those who live in this area, ensuring that we try to tackle the disparities we see in the health of our population. [Continue Reading …]

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Continuously Learning Health Systems

Tweet Learning requires humility. It requires us to accept that we don’t know everything, that we get it wrong sometimes, make mistakes and need to own up to them so that we don’t do the same thing again. Learning is a vital part of all we do in health and social care, if we are [Continue Reading …]

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