In recent years, childhood trauma has been increasingly recognized as a risk factor for serious physical and emotional problems in adulthood.
“Now we know that folks that have four or more traumatic events in childhood are much more significantly likely to have seven of the 10 leading causes of death,” said Dr. Jeffrey Martin, chair of the Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s department of family and community medicine. “It’s a very high association with the big disorders that we see.”
Here are some takeaways from a discussion Martin and several others had this week with LNP’s editorial board about the kinds of childhood trauma that are technically called “adverse childhood experiences.”
In addition to Martin, participants included Rep. Mike Sturla of Lancaster and Melanie Snyder and Alice Yoder of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, who are respectively its trauma-informed specialist and executive director of community health.
It comes in many forms
Adverse childhood experiences encompass physical and emotional trauma due to abuse or neglect; sexual abuse; divorce; having an incarcerated relative; living with someone who experienced mental illness or substance abuse; and seeing your mother treated violently.
A 2016 study found that 1 in 8 Pennsylvania respondents reported having four or more childhood traumas. Key research on the topic was done in California in the mid-1990s, among 17,000 people with commercial insurance.
The more adverse experiences, the higher the risk for negative outcomes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Research says that compared to people with no traumatic childhood experiences, those who have four or more are up to 12 times more likely to commit suicide; seven times more likely to have an alcohol use disorder; and two times more likely to have strokes, heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
Help is available
Childhood trauma does not always mean poor outcomes; factors like resilience have been found to have a protective effect even after the fact.
Being trained in how to prevent and mitigate adverse experiences is called becoming "trauma-informed," and in recent years the number of local police officers, social workers, teachers and others receiving that training is approaching 3,000.
Information about a Trauma-Informed Lancaster County summit set for Sept. 26 and 27 and other free trainings being offered is available at letstalklancaster.org/events-service/.
Where to turn
The panel recommended that people tell their primary care doctors if they experienced childhood trauma. United Way's 211 telephone referral service is also a good way to locate a behavioral health counselor, they said.
Here's one resource the local experts recommended.