How Adverse Childhood Experiences Affect Mental Health

closeup of young child looking sad and fearful - adverse childhood experiences

Unless you’ve already been through aspects of trauma therapy, you might be unfamiliar with the term “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs. Adverse Childhood Experiences are specific criteria that mental health professionals use to assess what traumas children or adults might have faced, and why treatment must resolve these issues before healing can begin.

Understanding ACEs

In general, human beings aren’t meant to suffer, and none of us wants to. But we’re often especially devastated to learn that a child has endured unbelievable circumstances.

Through a landmark study with the Centers for Disease Control & Kaiser Permanente, physician-researchers Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda developed the ACEs profile in 1997 to categorize traumatic childhood experiences from birth to age 17 into three groups: abuse, neglect, and household challenges. These include:

  • Experiencing violence to themselves or others close to them; emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; or various forms of neglect
  • Witnessing home– or community–based violence
  • Having a member of the family attempt or die by suicide

Adverse Childhood Experiences & Environment

The CDC states: “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 use problems
  • Mental health problems
  • Instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison.”

The examples listed above aren’t the only traumatic experiences a child might face. Bullying, homelessness, surviving and recovering from a severe accident, and being in the foster care system are a few of many others. But the ACEs categories offer a framework by which mental health professionals can have a clearer picture of what someone—whether a child or an adult—might need to address before progressing with wellness efforts. The CDC also indicates that “ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adulthood. ACEs can also negatively impact education, job opportunities, and earning potential.”

The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University notes that ACEs cause an individual to have more “toxic stress,” which describes “excessive activation of stress response systems on a child’s developing brain, as well as the immune system, metabolic regulatory systems, and cardiovascular system.” If a child has long-term exposure to extreme chronic stressors without the support of caring adults, this often “leads to negative adult behavioral and health outcomes.”

High Adverse Childhood Experiences & Mental Health

The  ACEs Quiz asks 10 questions about traumatic childhood experiences like those described in the study above. One point is given for each experience—the higher the score, the greater the risk of health and social problems. The American Society for Positive Care of Children indicates that if someone has an ACEs score of 4 or more, chronic emotional, mental, and physical health issues, as well as the potential for suicide, increase exponentially without proper intervention and care.

Fortunately, intervention and professional treatment are truly life-changing factors. ACEs Too High points to the benefits of positive childhood experiences, or PCEs, as one aspect of intervention that helps counterbalance the extremities of ACEs.

So for example, let’s say a child experienced physical and sexual abuse, a parent in prison, and violence in the home. With an ACEs score of 4, they are in a risk zone for negative behaviors and outcomes. However, if this child also had the benefit of loving grandparents who not only nurtured them but also eventually provided stable guardianship and expanded their supportive community, they might still have to work through trauma and seek mental health care, but they have a stronger chance of recognizing the impact of toxic stress and learn methods for managing it more effectively.

Cottonwood Tucson Provides Mental & Emotional Clarity

Too often, people look upon their past and think it’s best to just leave those bones buried, as there’s nothing that can be done now. In reality, taking time to understand what happened to you as a child is a prerequisite for changing your life for the better. Exploring those darkened corners might be challenging at first, but as an adult, the shift of power is completely in your favor.

At Cottonwood Tucson, our board-certified professionals recognize the importance of acknowledging trauma as a potential component of an individualized and focused treatment plan. This is often the missing link in other, less comprehensive care for mood disorders and mental illness. We have an entire program dedicated to trauma, PTSD, and complicated grief, and our unified care approach means your team will be able to address any aspects of mood disorders and co-occurring mental health issues.

Review our self-assessment quizzes to gain a better understanding of where you are in life now, and where you’d like to be in the future. Our admissions staff is available 24/7 to answer your questions.

Are you looking for mental health and addiction treatment in Tucson? For more information about Cottonwood Tucson, call (800) 877-4520. We are ready to help you or your loved one find lasting recovery.

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