Resilience – overcoming our past

All children face challenges – it’s how they learn and grow into responsible adults. But how does one child experience a terrible childhood trauma and survive, even prosper as an adult, while another child is emotionally and physically destroyed by it? The answer is closely linked to the amount of resilience in each child.

Resilience – the ability to recover from or adjust to trauma or misfortune – comes in many forms – a loving, supportive family; not living in poverty; access to quality health care and education; and association with other supportive adults, including grandparents, teachers and neighbors. Resilience against adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is also built by supportive environments in our homes, towns, schools and institutions. It is from resilience that children build protective factors to help them overcome abuse or neglect.

Arkansas has the highest percentage of children with at least one ACE; one in seven have experienced three or more ACEs. The mental and physical trauma that cause ACEs includes physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse; neglect; or household dysfunction, such as divorce, parental incarceration, substance abuse, mental illness or exposure to domestic violence.

The terrible power of ACEs is their potential to affect mental and physical health for a lifetime. The more ACEs a person has experienced, the more likely they are to have significant physical and mental health problems, now and into the future. As an adult, the damage of ACEs can translate into unemployment, financial problems or mental health issues. ACEs increase the long-term risks of smoking, alcoholism, drug abuse, heart and liver diseases, cancer, autoimmune diseases and a dozen other illnesses and conditions. The annual cost of child neglect and abuse in the United States is about $124 billion, according to the CDC.

Without resilience, the stress response from ACEs becomes chronic or toxic. Toxic stress affects brain and organ development and problems can occur decades after the trauma occurred.

Building resilient individuals, families and communities helps prevent and heal the damage caused by ACEs. Are the groups you spend time with doing all they can to help kids grow up resilient and healthy? Is your community doing all it should to be a safe place to grow up?

Are you an advocate for abuse prevention initiatives – parenting classes, foster parenting, prevent-bullying school curriculum, affordable childcare, sexual abuse prevention, safe parks, and constructive after-school and summer activities? If there’s nothing positive in your community to engage children, they will find mischief, or worse.

Health care professionals are in a crucial position to address ACEs through trauma-informed care (TIC). TIC is care that’s informed by the recognition and understanding of the effects of ACEs in patients’ lives. Providers who use TIC try to understand how early trauma shapes a person’s fundamental belief about the world and affects lifelong health.

Part of AFMC’s process to become a trauma-informed organization is recognizing the importance of resilience in improving health care and improving the lives of all Arkansans.

It starts with you. Children learn by example and adults are constantly teaching children – our children and grandchildren, neighborhood children. Adults’ behavior teaches what is acceptable and what is not; values about work, fun and learning; what’s important in life and how to lead a good life or a miserable one.

Connecting your life to the lives of children in your community teaches them to build healthy social ties. Social networks can boost resilience and have a huge impact on mental, emotional and physical health. Social ties help prevent abuse and violence toward others, according to the National Institutes of Health.

If you know children in crisis or in an abusive family, let them know you are concerned about them. Listen to them without judgement and emphasize that the situation is not their fault. Offer to go with them to talk with someone who can help. Find resources at Child Welfare Information Gateway here.

Learn to recognize when parents are stressed or have become isolated. These are two key risk factors for child abuse and neglect. This link provides toll-free crisis hotline phone numbers for 11 types of abuse or crisis that can affect children and families. Anyone who suspects abuse or neglect of a child may report it toll-free by calling the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-482-5964, or visit this website or contact any member of law enforcement. Prevent Child Abuse America offers ways that anyone can help any child reach their full potential.

In Arkansas, the ACEs and Resilience Coalition, a cross-sector collaboration of many organizations, is working to prevent and address the negative impacts of ACEs. AFMC is hosting the 4th  Annual Arkansas ACEs and Resilience Virtual Summit September 22 and 23. Learn more about the summit and register at afmc.org/aces. AFMC is also developing training for providers interested in adopting TIC in their practices. For more information, contact AFMC’s Public Affairs department at [email protected]

Editor’s note: Ray Hanley is President and CEO of Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care and Chad Rodgers, MD, is AFMC’s Chief Medical Officer. Rodgers discussed the subject of ACEs in a recent interview, which you can watch below. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.