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WNC Tackles An "Unaddressed Public Health Crisis"

Buncombe County Schools
As part of the Compassionate Schools Program, Calm Spots are located in classrooms and other student spaces.

Educators, mental health professionals, and law enforcement are gathering in Asheville this weekend to tackle what has been dubbed “an unaddressed public health crisis.”  BPR’s Helen Chickering talked with one of the conference organizers who is helping shine the spotlight on the issue here in Western North Carolina.

[Sound of drumming]

A gymnasium full of students are pounding on drums and rattling shakers.   Part of a percussion workshop  designed to connect children to music and foster teamwork.

It’s a fun activity and one that has caught the attention of researchers studying potential strategies to help prevent and treat the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences, called ACEs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -  Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years) such as experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect; witnessing violence in the home; and having a family member attempt or die by suicide. Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding such as growing up in a household with substance misuse, mental health problems, or instability due to parental separation or incarceration of a parent, sibling, or other member of the household.

The term was coined after a landmark study in the late 90s revealed the more ACEs a person experienced the higher their risk of problems in adulthood - everything from drug abuse to depression to diabetes.  

“The original study showed that two out of three people have at least one ACE – so it’s pretty impressive and it’s pretty common and it’s been labeled a public health crisis,” says Mary Lynn Barrett LCSW, MPH,   a behavioral health specialist at the Mountain Area Health Education Center and has dedicated much of her career to ACE awareness.

“Part of this idea of toxic stress that when you are sort of marinated in that.  When that is your home environment, that is supposed to be safe and it is not safe.  Then it affects your body and your nervous system. So if you are a child that is experiencing these things and you show up at school you may not be able to sit still, you may be in some sort of fight or flight response. "

Barrett says down the road, as those children grow up without addressing those adverse childhood experience, that toxic stress begins to take a toll on the nervous system.

“And it has a cascading effect over all the systems the nervous system regulates:  the endocrine system, so we see diseases like diabetes, coronary artery disease. So things you wouldn’t necessarily think of along with things that also make sense, in terms of depression, higher suicidality along with substance abuse.”

Barrett is quick to point out that while the developing body is susceptible to the toxic effects of ACEs, it is also wired for resilience and healing,  She  has  been instrumental in creating awareness and resilience training programs for schools, health care providers and law enforcement here in Western North Carolina – and beyond. 

“Whether you work in early childcare and its more prevention focused or with adults maybe in the prison system, everybody needs to understand there is something you can do for yourselves, or for people around them.” 

And that brings us back to the gym full of drummers   Barrett says a growing body of research supports the healing power of rhythmic activities like drumming singing and walking as a way to help trigger a sensation of safety in people coping with ACE related trauma.

For more information about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Conference click  here.  Take the ACE quiz here.

Helen Chickering BPR News


Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.