Childhood trauma takes a multitude of forms–physical, emotional and sexual abuse, divorce, neglect, poverty, substance abuse and many other examples create adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.
Local and state leaders met at the Las Cruces Convention Center to explore how communities throughout New Mexico can work to reduce and prevent ACEs.
Dr. Katherine Ortega Courtney is co-director of the Anna, Age 8 Institute.
The Santa Fe nonprofit is named after Ortega Courtney’s book detailing the data-driven prevention of childhood trauma. While the root causes are numerous, Ortega Courtney said child trauma is cyclical.
“If parents experience childhood trauma it's more likely that they will pass that along to their kids and families kind of get stuck in this generational trauma. Another thing we know is social adversity is a huge root cause of childhood trauma as well," Ortega Courtney said. "So, that means things like struggling with housing, struggling with food, not knowing where you're going to sleep tonight–things like that all have a huge impact on childhood and on your brain and other things like racism, structural inequalities, all of those things can contribute to childhood trauma as well."
“In childhood when these things happen to us very early on, our brains get stuck in this fight or flight constantly and so instead of calming down, we stay activated," Ortega Courtney told summit attendees.
A landmark 1998 study by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente first described how early adversity impacts lifelong health and leads to increased risks for chronic diseases, risky behaviors and socioeconomic challenges.
More recently, a 2019 CDC report found that six in 10 adults studied experienced at least one ACE–and one in six have had four or more. Courtney said the more trauma children experience, the more negative outcomes they’re likely to face as adults.
“Those can be things like substance abuse, failing in school, incarceration, crime–pretty much every negative outcome that people want to prevent in New Mexico. Things we struggle with a lot like substance abuse, lack of jobs, unemployment, struggling parents, involvement in the child welfare system. All of those things are highly related to adverse childhood experiences," Courtney said."
State Sen. Bill Soules teaches AP psychology at Oñate High School.
After reading Anna, Age Eight, Soules had his students answer a 10-question survey to calculate their ACEs scores. The higher the score, the more trauma they faced.
"And it was very changing for me. My ACEs score is a 1, my parents got divorced," Soules told the audience.
"It's so emotional when you realize how many people are living these completely hidden lives–and it's kind of horrifying, frankly," Oñate High School senior David Bussell, who scored a 2 on the ACEs survey, said.
The 17-year-old said the experience taught him how fortunate he is compared with many of his peers.
"What I learned about myself is that I was actually quite privileged frankly to have a really good childhood, really good accepting parents who weren't you know involved in drugs, didn't neglect us, were very sure to make sure that we were always safe and understood and heard by them," Bussell said. "And it also just helped me relate to my other students a lot better, realizing that people I didn't really expect to go through a lot had been through a lot and it kind of helped us all bond a little bit.”
“So, what do we do about that? How do we talk about it? And so, it became me trying to comfort them a bit that first ACEs are not destiny," Soules said.
As a state lawmaker, Soules worked to appropriate roughly $1 million in funds to establish the Anna, Age Eight Institute.
“I can appropriate funds so that we aren’t going to continue to traumatize children, have them having adverse childhood experiences that are going to get in the way of their learning, of their future. We can do that at the state level and then it’s up to local folks to actually set up those systems so we have healthy communities," Soules said.
Before families can thrive, Ortega Courtney said they need access to five key services to survive–food, housing, medical/dental care, behavioral healthcare and transportation.
“If people don't have basic needs, their basic needs met, they're not going to be able to get to the next level and do things like graduate from college and do well in school and get jobs. So, we really need to make sure our kids have food and shelter and really start with the basics and then from there we can go up to things like mentoring programs and job programs and really have our communities thrive as a whole," Ortega Courtney said.
For students like Bussell, survival is a prime concern in the era of mass shootings. He added taking part in lockdown drills contributes to childhood trauma.
But he wants to see more meetings like this–and offered a suggestion.
“Listen. Listen to the students who are going through this and create an environment where they can be heard and can be listened to. Make sure to open up the forum and share your own experiences. I think a big part of why we were to talk so openly in our classroom about this is our own teacher talked about his ACE and he cried in front of us about how it affected his life and how it affects him to this day," Bussell said. "So, it’s just about creating safe environments where they cannot only be listened to but feel like they are being heard.”
A message these child advocates heard clearly.