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Another Voice: Childhood trauma has devastating, lifelong effects

By Kenneth P. Houseknecht

The Buffalo News recently reported that a third of the City of Buffalo’s middle- and high-schoolers have seen someone shot, stabbed or assaulted. The same article noted that children living in violent neighborhoods suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate three times higher than troops returning from Iraq, national studies show.

Add to this the influx of refugees in Western New York from war-torn areas – many of whom come from cultures where mental health issues are not even acknowledged – and the magnitude of the challenge we are facing begins to come into clear view.

And throw into the mix the escalating crises of drug overdoses and deaths, bullying, suicide and self-harm, and rising rates of anxiety and depression among young people, and it’s clear we need to formulate new and better ways to address these issues.

Science is showing an inescapable link between trauma, especially in childhood, and physical illnesses, particularly those like cancer, heart problems and other life-shortening diseases.
According to the ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) study, the more severe and sustained the trauma, the higher the risk.

During trauma, the body is flooded with chemicals and hormones designed to make the heart beat faster, spread oxygen throughout the body, cause muscles to enlarge, and increase the odds of surviving a life-threatening situation. It’s the “fight or flight” response we all learned about in psychology class.

But what if, as is the case with children, you can’t fight or flee? Then what? All those chemicals “freeze” in your body, producing changes at the cellular level. This emerging area of science is called epigenetics, and its findings are devastating.

There are ways to respond more effectively. As is the case with nearly every problem, early intervention is critical. But many childhood traumas, like sexual abuse, are often concealed or kept suppressed for decades. Often, by the time they are brought into the light, irreversible damage has already been done.

We see many of these people in the mental health system. Not surprisingly, in addition to their physical symptoms, they suffer from an assortment of emotional issues, including anxiety, depression, higher risks for suicide and a range of serious disorders.

Our community needs to do a better job here. A much better job.

The Trauma Informed Community Initiative is currently training 35 “trauma community champions” from throughout Western New York. That’s a good start. But more – much more – needs to be done. And soon.

Denying, ignoring or minimizing trauma simply compounds the problem, literally piling one injury on top of another.

Kenneth P. Houseknecht is executive director of the Mental Health Association of Erie County.

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