Childhood Trauma as an Illness

As the recently implemented Medicaid expansion remains in the national spotlight, mental health awareness sits comfortably by its side. Meanwhile, in Mississippi, state legislators are continuing to resist the expansion of Medicaid, and an estimated 77,000 individuals with mental health disorders remain untreated. Mississippi is also notably near the bottom of the scale when it comes to quality of life and income levels: 30 percent of children in Mississippi live in poverty, the highest rate in the nation.

That fact alone is notable in regards to how mental illness is viewed at a national level. In discussions of mental health, the talk tends to focus solely on adults. Yet overlooking children who are mentally ill or have experienced severe emotional trauma may be detrimental to society as a whole. According to recent studies, people who were exposed to toxic stress as children are at a greater risk of developing both mental and physical illnesses as adults.

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The first known research into the health effects of childhood trauma was conducted in the mid-1990s. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study was groundbreaking at the time, yet childhood trauma continues to be misdiagnosed and/or misclassified. The ACE study found dramatic links between childhood trauma, impaired cognitive function, diseases, disability, and even early death. 

Generally speaking, there are three main classifications of ACEs: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. The more traumatic events that a child has experienced, the higher his or her ACE score. While a high ACE number is simply a guideline and doesn’t take into account the positive influences in a child’s life, the numbers are striking nonetheless. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the Surgeon General of California, reports that 67 percent of U.S. adults experienced at least one ACE as a child. Further, 12.6 percent of the population have had at least four ACEs. 

It’s clear that childhood trauma needs to be better addressed, for the sake of America’s youth. Perhaps Medicaid expansion will be a key factor towards improved treatment for childhood trauma. 

When Trauma is Disguised as Mental Illness

Dr. Burke Harris initially discovered the adverse effects of childhood trauma when working with children in impoverished neighborhoods, who had been previously diagnosed with ADHD. But Burke Harris couldn’t make the same diagnosis in the majority of her young patients. Instead, she realized that most had experienced some type of severe childhood trauma.

Her observations led to further research into the ways that exposure to childhood trauma affects developing brains and bodies. For instance, trauma can inhibit the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that contributes to personality development and active short-term memory. Further, early exposure to adversity and/or abuse can hinder the development of the amygdala, where emotions are processed.

So how can parents determine if their child is actually exhibiting symptoms of a mental illness, or is instead responding to the effects of trauma? It can be difficult to recognize mental illness in children, but parents and caregivers should be as vigilant as possible, as prompt detection is essential to developing a successful treatment plan. According to Maryville University, “early intervention for children with mental health conditions can help them develop healthy coping mechanisms.”

Common Sources of Childhood Trauma

The three primary classifications of ACEs — abuse, household dysfunction, and neglect — can be further broken down into numerous subcategories. For instance, abuse can be physical, emotional, or sexual. Household dysfunction may include divorce, substance abuse, or domestic violence. Each traumatic experience is unfortunately common among American children in our modern times, and more disturbing is the fact that ACEs are often co-occurring.

Domestic violence is one of the most prevalent forms of abuse in the U.S. An estimated 1 in 3 women will experience physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime, and in many cases, their children will witness that abuse. Those young witnesses may have a difficult time processing what they have seen, and often live in fear that the abuse will reoccur. 

For the health of the entire family, it’s imperative that families experiencing domestic violence remove themselves from the situation as soon as possible. Depending on where the violence occurred, an attorney may be able to prioritize the safety of all victims involved. Domestic violence attorneys will ask a judge to put a no-contact order in place to protect the alleged victim and her children. But the trauma stemming from domestic violence will likely still need to be addressed by a counselor or similar professional. 

It’s important to note that childhood trauma can also stem from non-violent events and situations. Living in poverty, for example, can be extremely traumatic and may ultimately lead to mental illness and substance abuse in adulthood. That’s because children facing income inequality have an uphill battle that can last a lifetime. Breaking free from the stigma and fear that typically accompanies a life of food insecurity and underfunded schools is no small feat.

A Changing Mental Health Landscape

But there is hope for the millions of American children who have experienced or are currently experiencing some form of childhood trauma. As previously discussed, Medicaid expansion may help bridge the treatment gap among uninsured Americans of all ages who are living with some type of mental health disorder. Medicaid provides coverage for mental health treatment and medications for a variety of conditions. 

Childhood trauma treatment options vary significantly and are highly individualized, ranging from cognitive behavioral therapy to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Alternative treatments and herbal supplements may also provide symptom relief for trauma survivors. For instance, many people have found relief from anxiety and depression with help from CBD oil. CBD is reported to support healthy endocannabinoid system responses, and is often used in tandem with traditional treatment methods.

As we develop a greater understanding of childhood trauma, we can better promote healing among those individuals who experienced it. A healthier adult population may stem from more comprehensive treatment options for those individuals with elevated ACE numbers. States taking advantage of Medicaid expansion should also ensure that their new coverage includes mental health disorders, no matter the patient’s age. 
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Author: Sam Bowman