History of childhood trauma high on Vashon

A high number of parents on Vashon report they experienced multiple traumas as children, according to a statewide study, and are at an increased risk of chronic disease, mental illness and a host of societal problems — as well as the increased possibility that their own children will experience trauma.

The same Vashon parents report that they often or always receive the emotional support they need, though experts say it is not clear yet how much that support counteracts the affects of adverse childhood experiences, dubbed “ACEs” by those who work in the field.

Laura Porter, the director of ACE Partnerships at the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), noted the importance of this information, which her office recently released.

“Toxic stress in childhood is the most powerful determinant of the public’s health,” she said.

On Vashon, more parents report having had three or more ACEs than parents in most other communities in King County, according to the recent DSHS report. This report features information from a study the Washington State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control conducted between 2009 and 2011 about the prevalence of ACEs in Washington. In fact, out of roughly 40 King County communities, Vashon ranks fourth highest in the number of adults who experienced three or more childhood traumas, such as physical abuse, parental discord in the home or a family member with a mental illness. This type of stress carries over from one generation to the next, Porter said, noting that parents who experienced five or more ACEs are 14 times more likely to have a condition that will result in trauma for their own children.

The study is based on extensive, random phone interviews with adults with children in the home. On Vashon, one-third of respondents reported experiencing three or more childhood traumas. Only Federal Way, West Seattle and Kent reported higher numbers, with Kent topping the chart at about 41 percent. In contrast, only a fraction of parents in several other communities reported having had three or more childhood traumas, such as northeast Seattle with 12 percent and Mercer Island at 6 percent.

While such trauma occurs across all socio-demographic groups, Porter said, she had not expected the island’s statistics to be so high.

“When I saw the Vashon numbers, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m shocked,’” she said.

Porter said she does not know why the correlation exists, and noted that it could simply be coincidence that so many island parents share this type of history.

Regardless, Porter said she believes the statistics provide important and accurate information.

“It is an indication that ACEs are likely higher on Vashon than in other areas of King County,” she said.

Typically, the higher an ACE score in any population, the higher the likelihood of a range of problems, Porter said. She expects that to be the case on Vashon as well and suspects that on the island there are higher than normal rates of chronic diseases, more depression and other mental health challenges, increased injury rates and high unemployment, among other problems.

In fact, apprised of the high number of people who have died by suicide on Vashon in the past year, Porter said that the two health effects most strongly correlated with ACEs are suicide and intravenous drug use.

“You may be having transmission of toxic stress across the generations that could affect young people’s ability to navigate their daily lives and build hope for the future,” she said.

Porter said research indicates that Vashon would benefit from increased social and emotional support for parents with young children, more dialogue about what kind of life islanders want for their children and grandchildren and — in the island’s formal institutions such as Vashon Youth & Family Services and the schools — clear plans for addressing problems among adolescents, including dating violence, drug and alcohol use and suicide.

“There should be organized and systemic methods for prevention and intervention,” she said.

Information about the prevalence and effects of ACEs is very new, Porter said, and is only now beginning to be written about in the popular press. Washington, she noted, is a leader in the field.

Despite the newness of the information, Meri-Michael Collins, co-chair of the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA), said the data is already influencing the coalition’s focus and noted that a working group with representatives from health care, drug and alcohol prevention and social services is set to meet this week and will focus on revising its strategic plan to increase wellness on Vashon.

“We can’t ignore the fact that the suicide rate has gone up, drug and alcohol use among 10th and 12th graders is high and our ACEs are still high,” Collins said. “The data is just screaming at us.”

While many people think of VARSA’s mission as reducing youth substance abuse, Collins said many issues inter-relate, and the group is broadening its focus and working with its county and state granting partners accordingly.

“As we see with those ACEs, these things all go hand in hand,” she said.

She noted that for her — and many others on Vashon — the ACEs information is not just data, but is personal, and she has a sense of urgency about addressing the necessary issues as a community.

“I have a family story that goes with those ACEs,” she said. “A lot of us do.”

The findings about the prevalence of ACEs in this state have their roots in a large study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control in California in the 1990s, Porter said. The study leaders were trying to determine the risks for cardiovascular disease. Instead, in what Porter characterized as a “massive breakthrough,” they found that childhood trauma contributes to a range of health problems across the age spectrum, including difficulty with learning and memory in the earliest years, behavior problems in young children, participating in high-risk behavior as a teen and increased injury, illness, adversity and poverty in adults.

The reason for these challenges is rooted in neurobiology, Porter said. From the beginning developmental stages in utero through the early adult years, the brain is developing and is shaped by a person’s surroundings. Sometimes — depending on those surroundings — this creates  a mismatch between the brain chemistry and wiring and society’s expectations. For example, while society expects people to be calm and talk problems through with a  high degree of reason, people whose brains formed in tense surroundings may have more difficulty doing so because their brains adapted to the need for rapid response and quick escapes.

“That is OK in dangerous situations,” Porter said, “but it is not OK at work or in classrooms.”

Such early brain development can also create problems years later in parenting, Porter noted.

“Parents that have a  high number of ACEs benefit from a high degree of support,” she said, “but our society is not organized that way.”

Scientists now understand that whether people grow up in calm surroundings or traumatic surroundings, their brains develop in a manner that benefits them in their immediate environment. Biologically speaking, it is not that some people adapt well and some poorly.

“The neuroscience is clear,” Porter said. “It is adaptation, and it is helpful to the species.”

This is often good news for people who struggle with certain issues, Porter said, such as difficulty in parenting. People often internalize their problems, not understanding the root of some of their difficulties, and are relieved to learn they are having a biological response, not simply making a bad choice.

“It is good for communities and individuals to know this and to be more compassionate with themselves,” Porter said.

While compassion and understanding are valuable steps, experts say the cycle of trauma must be stopped for a range of problems to decrease. For Porter, this is where hope lies. By stopping the cycle of childhood trauma, she said, communities would improve the lives of children and their families and also create a healthier future for their community as a whole.

“This is a massive scientific breakthrough that everyone should know about and own,” Porter said.

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