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Childhood trauma still affects adults, nonprofit warns

DUTCHTOWN – The Thomas Dunn Learning Center, 3113 Gasconade St., hosted a trauma awareness presentation on Nov. 14 sponsored by Alive and Well Communities. The presentation explored the widespread impact of trauma on child development and the roll-over effects into adulthood.

    “We are a brand new nonprofit here in St. Louis and all throughout the state,” said Kelsey Burns, manager of training and technical assistance at Alive and Well. “We have been a stand-alone for two years. We started as a public health initiative out of the St. Louis Regional Health Commission and are [charged] with trying to figure out how toxic stress and trauma  are affecting our communities. It turns out that it’s a lot; and the community said, ‘Well great, you’re doing this work, now do something about it.’ So we were instructed by the communities that we serve to fill this gap.” 

“The way trauma affects us at a community level, a historical level and how it affects our bodies physiologically, that’s just not a part of mainstream conversation in the field of trauma,” Burns said.  

   “What are the stories we tell ourselves to explain why other people show up the way they do? When someone acts a certain way or says something that just doesn’t make sense in our brain, how do we fill in the gaps, our understanding?” Burns said.

    Some of the things that came to mind from participants when talking about trauma were violence, fear and sexual assault.

“Trauma can be those things we don’t talk about, the things that happen behind closed doors,” Burns agreed. “I want to offer you up today, the framework for understanding trauma. So we call this the three e’s – event, experience and effect. 

   “The event can be an actual experience, or it can be a threat of physical or psychological harm, that’s pretty straightforward; or the withholding of those material resources that we need to live, to feel safe, to feel comfortable,” Burns explained. Participants offered up homelessness and poverty as examples.

   “What makes something traumatic is how someone assigns meaning to an event, which is solely shaped on their experience, the identity they carry and what they have been through before,” Burns explained. “The experience of trauma is so personalized, it’s a complicated tapestry. It’s not just about the thing that happens, it’s about everything that shapes and forms that experience for each individual person.”

   Burns, who has a background in clinical social work, discussed public-event trauma, community trauma and chronic trauma.

Public-event trauma involves a shared experience because of forces beyond our control, such as a car accident.

Community trauma involves experiences such as crime, which can affect whole areas and groups of people; or suicide, which may directly affect only a few but brings social consequences.

“When I say ‘community,’ I’m talking about where you live, go to school, what beliefs you have, your religious organization, identities that you carry,” Burns said. 

“Chronic trauma can be community or environmental,” Burns said. “[It] is repetitive and occurs over an extended period of time, such as domestic violence, child abuse and even sexual assault. … Our mind and body automatically respond in three ways, fight, flight and freeze. … With freeze comes the concept of disassociation from our bodies in order to cope.”

   “There is a powerful relationship between emotional experiences as children and physical and mental health as adults, including diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer, as well as alcoholism, depression and drug abuse,” Burns said, citing data from the Liverpool Children and Young People’s Mental Health and other sources. The data support statistics showing the prevalence of trauma from adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs.

“As adults, children who were placed in foster care have PTSD rates twice as high as U.S. war veterans,” Burns said. She explained that the impact of trauma on the brain reduces the number of connections formed and reduces the size of the brain cortex, along with other issues that result in memory problems, attention difficulty, delay in speech development and emotional and behavioral problems.

   “How trauma is experienced is dependent on both developmental and life stages. Change, whether between major stages of development or within someone’s life circumstances, can often result in the-emergence of symptoms that can be experienced throughout the life span,” Burns said. The effect of ACES on adult health can be manifest physically in diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and, again, diabetes. ACES can also be the source of poor workplace performance, absenteeism and serious financial problems. 

   Burns talked about historical and systemic trauma caused by racism, poverty, gender inequity, violence, lack of access to services and xenophobia, a prejudice against people from other places or countries.

“My grandfather was a World War II veteran and got excellent benefits when he completed his service and was able to buy a home, because he was white. Those benefits were not extended to black veterans,” Burns said.

   Burns noted that “large bodies of literature in sociology, economics, anthropology, and public health document that U.S. blacks are more likely to experience stressful situations, such as material hardship, interpersonal discrimination, structural discrimination in housing and employment and multiple care-giving roles than whites.”

    Burns, further citing sources, said, “Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents ages 10-19 in the U.S.  Youth who identify as sexual minorities have rates of suicide up to three times higher, and 74 percent of sexual minority youth reported experiencing verbal harassment because of their sexual orientation, 33 percent reported physical harassment and 72 percent cyberbullying.”

   Black and low-income students receive harsher school disciplinary measures than their peers for the same types of infractions, studies show. Black students account for 16 percent of enrollment but represent more than 30 percent of school-based arrests. Research suggests Black students are frequently disciplined for minor infractions such as defiance or disrespect. Suspensions contribute to chronic absenteeism, which is associated with lower academic performance and lower graduation rates for black youth.

“If a white girl sits in class and rolls her eyes she is not likely to be suspended, but if a black girl does the same thing, she would be,” Burns said. 

Burns stressed that trauma cannot be “cured.”

“Individuals may require additional intervention at various points in their lifespan,” she warned. “You don’t have to be a therapist to be therapeutic. One buffering, supportive individual can mitigate the trajectory of trauma.” 

For more information on Alive and Well Communities’ work, see

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