There are many facets to stories of childhood trauma, and many layers. When I was 4 years old, I developed, in rapid succession, strep throat, scarlet fever, and then rheumatic fever. My older brother started his 10 year journey of obesity. We had both been victims of violence and other abuse from my earliest memory. Then as a teenager and in my early twenties, I had multiple surgeries requiring general anesthesia for various rare but treatable physical ailments – strangely all in the same location, but caused by different factors. As an adult, I worked on the emotional effects of PTSD best helped through cognitive behavioral therapy. I discovered exercise helped my mood significantly. Even so, I did not consider the the stress of my childhood might have affected my body until I read Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.
Trauma is no stranger to anyone: if we haven’t experienced ourselves, we know a loved one who has experienced or witnessed violence, abuse or neglect. When I read this book, I could not help but think of the children who are now separated from their parents at the borders as well as of children fleeing Syria. There are sadly many places where trauma is a fact of life, and the inner city can be one of them. It is a matter of public as well as individual health.
WHO recognizes that social conditions are important factors in health, and the all contribute to our total health. Nadine Burke Harris gives a gripping account of her exploration of the link between adverse childhood experience or (ACE) and toxic stress. She is a social innovator in public health and serves a vibrant and economically disadvantaged community, in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point (BHP). She describes the challenges she faced personally and professionally when she opened the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW) as well as her attempts to have ACE and toxic stress, recognized as serious issue in children’s health, which included getting pediatricians to use screening protocols for ACE in pediatric assessments.
Burke Harris, a pediatrician with a Master’s in Public Health, writes with passion about connecting the stress of her patients with their emotional and physical well-being. When offering free pediatric care to children via her clinic, CYW, in BHP, an area that is on the extreme end of San Francisco’s social and economic inequality, Burke Harris saw clear relationships between the trauma that the community’s children experienced and their emotional and physical health. Toxic stress can, and often does, manifest itself in disease and poor health. Her examination discusses how poverty in the inner city can result in greater incidence of poor health with difficult living conditions, more exposure to violence, and untreated mental illness. While San Francisco’s median income was above $100,000 in 2016, City-Data shows that 31% of residents of Bayview Hunters Point live below the poverty line as of the last U.S. Census.
Poverty contributes to trauma, but Burke Harris reminds her audiences that trauma crosses all socio-economic boundaries. She tells us not only the stories of the children that she treated, and still treats, at the BHP Center, but also about her personal journey of trauma. Trauma does not stop in the wealthier neighborhoods. Helping overcome childhood trauma depends on your caregiver. There are engaged and nurturing caregivers in every community, just as there are neglectful caregivers in any community; however, if you live in inner city poverty, your chance of seeing violence randomly outside the home is likely. In one of Burke Harris’ case studies, a teenage boy, recovering well from childhood abuse, sees his best friend is killed on the street in front of him. Understandably, this incident is a setback for his health. The children Burke-Harris treated suffer from multiple adverse reactions, and have debilitating physical and psychological challenges ranging from asthma, obesity, failure to thrive, to stunted growth.
Although Burke-Harris’ accounts of traumatic experience can be shattering, such as the boy who stopped growing at age four when he trauma is exclusive to inner city poverty. Burke Harris reminds her audience repeatedly that toxic stress is an issue in any income bracket. Bringing this to a wider audience, Burke Harris shows us that society suffers when it ignores childhood trauma.
Thankfully, something can be done to help children (and adults) suffering from toxic stress. In fact, according to Burke Harris, part of the antidote to toxic stress is truly integrated health treatment including a combination of healthy relationships, counselling, meditation, exercise, and nutrition. The caregiver and their response to trauma play a huge role, but, sadly for those in underserved areas, so do the resources available to the child.
Though the subject matter is tough, the book and its author are inspiring, positive and passionate. This title comes as a hardcopy, eBook and is also available as an audiobook narrated by the author, which I highly recommend.
Watch Dr. Nadine Burke Harris here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk or find her book at your local library in audio, eBook or hardcopy: Burke Harris, Nadine. (2018) The deepest well: Dealing with the long-term effects of childhood adversity. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt