Healthy Tahoe: Confronting trauma for a healthier future |

Healthy Tahoe: Confronting trauma for a healthier future

M. Rhonda Sneeringer, MD, FAAP

We all face challenges and obstacles in life. Some, unfortunately, endure greater or ongoing trauma. Children are especially vulnerable to toxic stresses and traumatic events, and multiple studies show that adverse childhood experiences can have serious consequences on children’s health and well-being into their adult lives.

The first and groundbreaking ACEs study was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente between 1995 and 1997. Researchers found that childhood abuse, trauma, and toxic stress — or ACEs — can lead to riskier behaviors, mental illness, substance abuse, heart disease, cancer, or other health issues. The higher the number of traumatic events in childhood, the greater the likelihood of poor health outcomes as an adult.

Why is this? In short, it comes down to brain science. When a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event, it activates the brain’s stress response system. This fight-or-flight response may include feelings of anger, fright, insecurity, anxiousness, or intense sadness. This is particularly harmful to a child’s developing brain, especially when trauma reoccurs or is not addressed. ACEs can compromise a child’s brain development, immune system, and cardiovascular system.

Research on ACEs shows that traumatic events in childhood are common, regardless of socio-economic status. In the initial ACEs study, more than 65% of the diverse population studied self-reported one traumatic event and more than 20% reported three or more types of adverse experiences.

ACEs research has motivated doctors to develop a screening tool to identify potential stresses early and provide extra support and intervention for families at risk. This screening tool has been adapted by doctors across El Dorado County including the pediatricians at Barton Health. When a pediatrician knows what is happening in a child’s world, they can offer resources to help meet basic needs or provide resources to teach children strategies for responding to stressful events.

While preventing trauma from occurring is the ideal approach, someone who experiences excessive trauma or adverse events is not irreparably damaged. Research and brain science also show that supportive services, community resources, and resilience skills can greatly improve children’s health and well-being. The sooner an issue or trauma can be identified, the earlier the intervention can be adapted to help buffer children from the immediate and long lasting effects of toxic stress.

No community is immune to trauma. An ACEs working group was formed in South Lake Tahoe to help understand and address the physical and behavioral health repercussions of childhood trauma.

This working group is comprised of experts from El Dorado County Health and Human Services, Lake Tahoe Unified School District, Barton Health, Foster Kinship Care, Live Violence Free, Family Resource Center, Tahoe Youth and Family Services, A Balanced Life, and other community experts. El Dorado County’s public health nurse, Audrey Hook, has been instrumental in influencing the use of the ACEs screening tool in appropriate settings throughout the county.

Like the saying says, it takes a village to raise a child. Together, we can prevent ACEs and help create brighter, healthier futures.

Dr. Sneeringer is the director of pediatrics at Barton Health.

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