Team effort needed on childhood trauma

Organisations have to work together to strengthen communities and tackle the impact of past traumas, an American expert said yesterday.

Wendy Ellis added that to improve the health of the community networks had to be built to deal with adverse childhood experiences and adverse community environments — the “two ACEs”.

She said a key element was to bring all interested groups to the table to develop trust and a collective approach.

Ms Ellis added: “Once you come to a shared understanding of what are the priorities for the community, you have to find out how you can best leverage your resources to really address things. It’s often not a matter of not having enough funding in one area, but it’s about duplicative funding or duplicative programmes. One sector is not talking to the others or a lot of resources are being piled into one area but not necessarily another.”

Ms Ellis and Bill Dietz of Washington DC’s George Washington University’s Building Community Resilience initiative were among the speakers at the two-day Adverse Childhood Experiences conference, organised by Family Centre, which ended yesterday.

The body has worked in cities across the US to bring organisations together to improve community health. Dr Dietz said researchers first identified the long-term effects of childhood trauma in a study in southern California.

He said: “The clinician recognised there was an association between severe obesity and adverse childhood experiences, particularly sexual abuse, and they put together a list of these exposures. The usual suspects were there — sexual, physical and verbal abuse — but also things like parental mental illness, incarceration, divorce and separation.

“There were pretty consistent findings that 25 per cent of the population has three or more of those experiences, and it’s known that those exposures are not only linked to chronic diseases like obesity, but they are also associated with a variety of adverse outcomes like tobacco use, drug use and early pregnancy.”

Dr Dietz said the problem cut across ethnic groups, but he added: “Some of the things the initial report didn’t address was the association with racism and the association with poverty, and how that might give you a completely different picture. Although the exposures may be comparable, the capacity for resilience is not, and that is where Wendy started working on community resilience.”

Dr Dietz said: “In order to build that trust, you need to address the historical sources of mistrust, which are often pretty difficult to address, like racism. It’s hard to address that kind of pain.”

Ms Ellis said community resilience was often linked to how well a community recovered from natural disasters. She added her work had focused on strategies and resources that helped a community recover from natural disasters to offset the effect — or prevent — chronic adversity.

Ms Ellis told the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club conference: “Part of that is really looking at poverty and unpacking it, looking at what poverty means. Does it mean food insecurity or unstable, unaffordable housing? What contributes to poverty?”

She added a lack of economic mobility or inequalities in the level of education available could all contribute to the problem.

Ms Ellis said the creation of a network of both government and grassroots bodies would not only help prevent adversity, but help people to bounce back from it. She added: “By unpacking things like poverty, we can begin to see what our roles are. We can begin to see what housing’s role is, what business development’s role is, what the healthcare system’s role is.

“All of these systems are supposed to be serving the best interests of the community, but we know there are inequities in what they provide and how they provide it which leads to negative outcomes that we see.”

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