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Sat., Jan. 19, 2013, midnight

Guest opinion: We need to nurture young brains

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting tragedy, and the president’s response, many communities are hotly debating gun control, mental health and school safety. These are all extremely important topics, but a critical root cause issue has not received enough attention: Adverse Childhood Experiences (“ACEs”) and trauma during childhood brain development.

The adage of an “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” should lead us as a community to ask the question: How do we get upstream? What are root causes of mental and behavioral health problems such as violence?

In a recent Miami Herald article, “Violence and the Brain in Early Childhood Development,” Robin Karr-Morse and David Lawrence Jr. discuss the fact that violence begins in the brain, and brain development begins in the womb. The authors explain, “an inadequate or traumatic care-giving relationship is deeply damaging, especially during those early years when the brain is forming chemically and structurally. … A child can emerge lacking the ability to attach or to resonate in any profound way with others, rendering that child emotionally and significantly damaged.”

In other words, compelling research demonstrates that traumatic experiences, especially during childhood while the brain is forming and developing, have a profound impact on a huge range of outcomes we care about. Perhaps as one way to understand the recent research, take another important mental health issue we may be more familiar with: the damaging effects of trauma/post-traumatic stress disorder on our veterans. Medical science has helped advance our understanding that mental trauma experienced by veterans creates physical neurological damage. If trauma has that impact on adult, highly trained military personnel with already developed brains, just imagine the impact on a young child while the brain is still forming.

As a community, we need to change the conversation. We cannot continue to ignore a key root cause of the problem. In addition to talking about tough issues such as gun regulations, school security resource officers and expanding mental health services, we need to be talking about building healthy brains from birth.

When we come together and do a better job of supporting our at-risk children and their parents as early as possible, we can achieve significant reductions in severe social issues such as violence, crime, suicide, depression, school dropout and drug addiction. There is evidence to support this.

We can do better. We need to provide novice parents with the tools and knowledge to nurture healthy, secure children. The earlier in a child’s brain development we equip parents, the better. We need to reduce the barriers for families to receive interventions at the most critical time – before they are separated.

Yet even though earlier is better, whether it’s one of our traumatized veterans or one of our traumatized teens, the brain science points to the plasticity of the brain and opportunity to mitigate the damage. It’s never too late.

We also know that when children experience ACEs, they tend to repeat the same traumas with their own children. Helping to heal the effects of ACEs on our teens/youth is a double win: treatment for the current generation, and prevention for the next. So, for example, for our at-risk youth we need to support our school districts’ efforts to integrate tools/resources for our teachers to engage with a traumatized child who is acting out, rather than out-of-school suspensions.

Most of all, we need to be innovative and collaborate. If we work together across sectors to create sustainable systems change, we can improve our community in powerful ways. Spokane organizations such as the SPO-CAN Council, Spokane Regional Health District, WSU Area Health Education Center, Spokane Public Schools, Priority Spokane, United Way and the School Community Partnership, among others, have been working hard to call for a dialogue about how to integrate trauma-informed brain science into our collective work. The effort continues to gain momentum.

On April 10, Our Kids: Our Business will present keynote speaker Robin Karr-Morse, author of “Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease” and “Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence.” Community members from all sectors need to attend the in-depth symposium, with the hope of spurring collective action in Spokane.

This issue affects all of us. It is not isolated to social service agencies or mental health providers. These are our kids, and one of the best ways to protect their future is to prevent and mitigate their traumatic and adverse childhood experiences.

Antony Chiang is the president of the Empire Health Foundation.

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