The public health crisis people aren’t talking about

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Nadine Burke Harris: How Does Trauma Affect A Child’s DNA? Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Hardwired.

When there’s an outbreak of influenza or an increase in opioid abuse, public health officials are prompt to label the matter as a public health crisis; and quick to take action. So why is the notion not the same for an issue as widespread and adverse as childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma is in fact just as common, if not more common, than public health crises like influenza and opioid abuse. According to a new study published by the Journal of American Medical Association, exposure to trauma in childhood is experienced by 60 percent of children by the age of 16. And its’ effects are strongly linked to mental health issues later in life, such as psychiatric disorders and family adversities. Numbers as large as these should be an indication that more attention needs to be drawn to the growing public health crisis that is childhood trauma.

“Participants with histories of trauma were also more likely to experience health problems, participate in risky behavior, struggle financially and have violent relationships or problems making friends. And the more childhood trauma a person experienced, the more likely they were to have those problems in adulthood,” according to NPR.

In a TED talk, Nadine Burke Harris, a California pediatrician, speaks of issues such as “child adversity” and “toxic stress” and how they gravely affect children during adulthood. She cites childhood exposure to early adversity as being a catalyst to health problems down the road; with early adversity being matters such as parental mental illness or substance abuse and physical or emotional abuse and neglect.

“Exposure to trauma during childhood can dramatically increase people’s risk for 7 out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the U.S.—including high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer—and it’s crucial to address this public health crisis,” according to Burke Harris.

Through a study called ACES, Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, done by Dr. Vince Felitti at Kaiser and Dr. Bob Anda at the Center for Disease Control, Burke Harris cites that childhood trauma is essentially not something you can just “get over.” In fact, early adversity and toxic stress together rewires the brain and the hormonal system; affecting areas like the pleasure and rewards system—responsible for substance dependence, as well as the amygdala—responsible for the bodies fear response.

The science is clear and the evidence is overwhelming; childhood trauma causes a plethora of health issues not only in childhood, but also throughout adulthood. Both physical and mental, these issues do not just go away without help. And while, doctors and researchers today such as Burke Harris are getting the word out on these issues, institutions have yet to keep up.


Emma DeGrandi is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at emma.degrandi@uconn.edu.

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