At one of four presentations about adverse childhood experiences, 20 people gathered at Maasconi’s in Verndale on March 2 to increase knowledge on ACEs, the results of an ACE study and create resiliency and empowerment to change the community.
MAHUBE-OTWA Community Action Partnership community health coordinator Chandler Esslinger received training on ACE presentations in 2017 and now works to build trauma informed communities through a partnership with the Wadena County Family Services Collaborative. The ACE study Esslinger discussed was originally completed in the 1990s by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanete, a health care company based in California.
The 10 ACEs from the study are separated into the three categories of household dysfunction, neglect and abuse with each item adding to a person’s total ACE score. The percentages of the 17,000 people in the study with these life events are:
Substance abuse 27%
Parental separation/divorce 23%
Mental illness 17%
Battered parent 13%
Criminal behavior 6%
Esslinger recognized the study included mostly well-educated middle-class white people with good health insurance, and overall the numbers are higher than reported as well as the considerations of being a person of color, LGBT person or person in poverty impacting one’s ACE score.
Esslinger also said ACEs are common. In reviewing Minnesota statewide data from eleventh grade students, Esslinger noted that no county had zero percent on any of the ACEs.
Within the study, Harvard scientists confirmed the neuroscience impact of ACEs since experiences create connections in the brain and the more one has the experience the stronger the bond. Esslinger gave the examples of two worlds where children grow up, either in malevolent or benevolent environments leading to survival mode fight, flight or freeze reactions or stability and the adult functioning of surviving worst or best conditions. When the environment is malevolent children are negatively impacted by toxic stress, which are periods of stress longer than 20 minutes, and lead to brain cells being killed, according to the study.
The historical trauma and negative coping strategies people are forced to develop can start to look like culture, which Esslinger sees in the stereotypes society has about groups of people such as African-Americans and Native Americans. The coping strategies and cumulative ACE health impacts over time range from smoking, drinking and drugs to COPD, depression, obesity, intimate partner violence, liver problems, unintended pregnancy and workplace problems. The long-term impact of ACEs include generations of families due to the influence on gene expression, or how DNA is read as it is passed down, according to the study.
“A lot of us feel like, especially when our whole family … has a relationship to ACEs, … it can feel like we’re doomed and I just, I don’t feel like that’s true for anyone,” Esslinger said.
The group presentation allows people to learn their ACE scores, recognize if they could support people experiencing ACEs or work to support the community in another way, according to Esslinger. In creating communities with decreased ACEs, Esslinger challenged people with the questions of, “What opportunities do you have in your community?” and “What would I want my home community to look like?”
“For me, some of the things that are most salient … is that we have an opportunity to heal ourselves because our trauma is not our destiny, it is stuff that we can work through if we have the right supports but it’s kind of up to our communities to create an environment where those supports are accessible,” Esslinger said.