Adverse Childhood Experiences

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Sat Apr 30 2022

Author: Guest contributor

Springer Nature supports the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the researchers and practitioners in policy and business tirelessly working towards them. For Mental Health Month we spoke to Dr Jennifer Hays-Grudo, Editor-in-Chief of Adversity and Resilience Science: Journal of Research and Practice.

Please tell us about the nature of your work.

My research for the past decade has focused on the negative effects of childhood adversity on physical and mental health and development, with a particular focus on the ways that nurturing relationships and enriched environments can mitigate negative outcomes. As the director of an NIH-funded center, the Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Adversity (CIRCA), which provides financial and scientific support for multiple interdisciplinary research projects, my colleagues and I have investigated the biobehavioral pathways linking early adverse and protective life experiences on later outcomes, including the intergenerational transmission of adverse childhood experiences, the effects of parental adversity and parenting behaviors on children’s brain development, anxiety, and depression, and the effects of mindfulness-based interventions on emotion regulation and mental health in adolescents who have experienced adversity.

Does your work intend to directly address ways in which we can improve mental health care services or access to care? If so, in which way?

Our research indicates that a variety of cost-effective interventions can improve mental health outcomes, significantly reducing barriers to care in low-income, rural, and other hard-to-reach populations.  These programs include mindfulness programs that reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and that can be easily implemented in early childhood centers, schools, and other community settings. Additional findings indicate that the antecedents of poor mental health in adulthood can be reduced by ensuring that children have opportunities for positive adult and peer relationships, to have hobbies and play sports, and have homes and schools that provide stability through predictable routines, appropriately enforced rules, and the resources necessary for growth and development.

What are the short and long-term goals of your work?

The short-term goals are to develop interventions and prevention programs to reduce the negative effects of adverse childhood experiences that can be widely disseminated and implemented. This includes trauma-informed programs for social service and mental health organizations, as many of our mental health providers work in conditions that overwhelm and challenge their sustainability. Our long-term goals are to provide a solid foundation of knowledge linking the importance of early childhood experience for subsequent mental health that policies supporting children and families will become standard practice at local, state, and national levels. One of the ways that we are moving toward this goal was by launching a new journal in the spring of 2020 with Springer Nature: Adversity and Resilience Science: Journal of Research and Practice (AARS). This international, interdisciplinary journal provides a platform for sharing research that impacts clinical practice and policy.

What do you think is the most productive way that researchers can engage policy makers? What has your experience been with policy engagement?

Researchers can engage policy makers most effectively when they speak directly to the needs of the constituents and stakeholders served by policy makers. A good example is our recent experience in Oklahoma forming partnerships between academic researchers, local philanthropic foundations, government, and community leaders to create a legislative task force to implement trauma-informed programs throughout all state agencies and departments that provide direct services to children and families. The activities of the Oklahoma Legislative Task Force on Trauma-Informed Practices led to the development of practical and sustainable communication channels across many state-wide organizations and increased access to information and training for state employees to prevent re-traumatization of individuals exposed to childhood trauma. 

What does public engagement look like in your field and how important do you think it is for researchers to make a societal impact with their work?

Public engagement is increasingly turning to social media as well as more direct communication with service providers and caregivers. In the field of childhood adversity and resilience, I frequently conduct continuing education programs for child and family therapists, psychiatry and pediatric students and residents, and workshops for mental health professionals. My colleagues and I have been interviewed for a variety of media to carry the message of how parents can help children become more resilient in response to the COVID pandemic and other types of adversity. We also published a book with APA Press to provide an overview of the effects of adverse and protective experiences during childhood and will publish a book on parenting to promote resilience in 2023 (LifeTools Press). 

What progress would you like to see next towards the improvement of mental health care, worldwide and locally?

The ideal next step to improve mental health globally and locally is to increase access to interventions for parents trying to break the cycle of adversity. We know that parents who have experienced trauma during their own childhoods want to provide a different experience for their own children, but often lack the mental and emotional skills in order to do so. Parenting programs for new parents, home-visitation programs for families with infants and toddlers, and center-based programs for pre-school-age children have been shown to deliver robust and sustainable improvements for the families engaged. Given that the effects of childhood trauma are the cause of billions in preventable health care costs as well as significant increases in social problems, the cost-effectiveness of early interventions is undeniable as well as morally and ethically defensible.

How can progress in science & research contribute to the improvement of mental health care access and support the fight against stigma?

One of the lessons we have learned from the research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is how widespread they are, with at least 60% of all samples across the U.S. reporting at least one form of childhood trauma. ACEs happen in the best of families as well as to those we have traditionally stigmatized. We know the causal links between childhood trauma and later mental health problems. We know that these problems often have their origins in the neurobiological and behavioral adaptations to trauma that help children survive in the short-term but have long-term consequences on the body’s ability to cope with stress, on emotion regulation, learning and memory problems, increasing the likelihood of behavior problems, alcohol and substance abuse, and other health-harming behaviors. When we view mental health problems through a trauma-informed lens, we ask “what happened to you?” rather than “what is wrong with you?” and we destigmatize mental health problems and we provide more opportunities for healing.  

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About the author: Jennifer Hays-Grudo, PhD, is a Regents Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at OSU Center for Health Sciences. She is the PI/PD of CIRCA (Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Adversity, an $11M NIH-funded research center. Previously she was department head of Human Development and Family Science at OSU, a George Kaiser Chair of Community Medicine at OU-Tulsa, and on the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine. She and Amanda Morris co-authored Adverse and Protective Childhood Experiences: A Developmental Perspective (2020, APA). She is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Adversity and Resilience Science, a Springer/Nature journal. 


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