Health Advocates Examine Lifelong Health Effects of Childhood Trauma

Andrew Kitchenman | September 17, 2014 | Health Care
NJTV program premiering tonight explores impact of adverse experiences on kids in urban areas

Credit: NJTV
Robert Atkins, Preston Brown and Dr. Ruth Perry take part in discussion of how childhood traumas can affect long-term health.
Traumatic experiences in childhood can have wide-ranging lifetime effects on a person’s health.

An awareness of this had led an increasing number of New Jersey healthcare providers to take this into account in treating patients, while healthcare researchers and advocates seek to better understand the impact of such traumas.

Adverse childhood experiences like the death of a parent; emotional, physical or sexual abuse or neglect; and having parents dealing with substance abuse, domestic violence or divorce are linked to shorter adult life spans, according to a study done by the insurer Kaiser Permanente in California in the 1990s.

The effects of childhood trauma in urban areas are the focus of an NJTV program premiering tonight at 8, “The State of NJ’s Health: Overcoming Childhood Trauma.”

NJTV senior correspondent Mike Schneider moderates a town-hall-style meeting, gathering experts to discuss ways that adults can help children overcome trauma and lessen its lifelong effects.

Kristin Schubert, director of the Plainsboro-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s programs dealing with “vulnerable populations,” said during the taping of the show that the earlier children are exposed to trauma, the greater the chances that there will be have physical and emotional consequences later in life.

For example, studies show that people with six or more adverse childhood experiences die nearly 20 years earlier than those who had none of these experiences.

“Prevention is possible and there are effective interventions that are out there to help kids and their families heal, and recover and build on their resilience,” Schubert said.

Philadelphia-based pediatrician Dr. Roy Wade helped conduct a study of city residents that found that people raised in low-income urban areas are more likely to experience some of these traumas, as well as additional adverse experiences in their communities, such as witnessing shootings or stabbings in their neighborhoods.

Wade said those who experience childhood trauma are more likely to engage in unhealthy behavior and are also more likely to have worse health outcomes in areas ranging from depression and diabetes to cardiovascular disease.

Schubert said the long-lasting effects make sense, considering the importance of brain development during childhood. Stress affects areas of the brain related to learning, memory, and how to process events and regulate emotions.

“Everything is interconnected,” she said.

A recurring theme among program participants was the positive effect that adults can have in helping children recover from traumatic experiences.

For example, civil-rights attorney and former Newark mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries overcame trauma with the help of adults who believed in him. His mother was murdered when he was 9 and his grandparents then raised him. His participation in the Boys & Girls Clubs led to his receiving a scholarship to attend Seton Hall Prep, which paved the way for future successes.

“I always had a belief in myself — because of what I was told and what I was shown – that I could do all things,” said Jeffries, adding that many children who’ve experienced trauma receive the opposite message.

Similarly, Camden resident Preston Brown overcame his mother’s struggle with drug addiction and his own involvement in drugs and crime. He now has a family and counsels at-risk youth.

Rutgers-Camden associate professor of nursing and childhood studies Robert Atkins said Brown always managed to connect with other adults in his life, which helped him through difficult periods. Atkins served as the school nurse at Brown’s elementary school and kept in touch with him through the years.

Dr. Ruth Perry, executive director of the Trenton Health Team, agreed that adults must send children the message that they are valued. She suggested that public policy must address a legacy of neglect, pointing to the decay of Trenton Central High School and its leaking roof.

“How can then we as a society and a community send children to a school in that condition?” Perry said.

She said the Trenton Health Team, which includes hospitals, a federally qualified health center and the city government, can make a difference in helping residents who’ve experienced traumatic events. The organization is devoted to increasing the coordination of healthcare for city residents, while working with community organizations and nonprofits on addressing the social factors that can affect residents’ health.

Elizabeth Manley, who directs statewide child behavioral health for the state Department of Children and Families, said the state is making progress in helping children overcome adverse experiences. For example, the state’s Mobile Response and Stabilization Services provides behavioral health services to families within one hour of an emergency. She said this helps reduce the long-term problems caused by traumatic events.

Disclosure: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides funding for NJ Spotlight’s health coverage.