Alaska, Education, Health

How ACEs Play Out In Small Town Alaska

 

View of downtown Seward, a close knit Alaskan community incorporating new research about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) into community programming. Photo by Kelley Lane.

by Kelley Lane forSeward Prevention Coalition

Seward is a thriving and warm community, full of people who care and want to nurture one another. Even so, the fact remains that we don’t all start with the same opportunities and that early childhood trauma can have a lasting impact on people’s lives. This is the concept that has broken into the field of child development over the last few years. The new way of talking about this concept of unequal starts is known as ACES. According to the national Prevention Institute “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) is the term given to describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other traumatic experiences that occur to individuals under the age of 18. The landmark Kaiser ACE study examined the relationships between these experiences during childhood and reduced health and well-being later in life.” There are eleven different categories of ACEs, including physical and emotional abuse, and variations on these themes, including incarcerated family members, witnessing domestic violence and various forms of neglect.

Image courtesy of Center for Youth Wellness.

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In Seward, we contend with many of the same challenges as anywhere in the United States: hunger, family tensions of varying sorts, and transportation. But there are other, uniquely Alaskan issues that we also contend with. For instance, the rates of alcoholism are higher in the 49th state, as is domestic violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And there’s the fact that many families living in Alaska have fewer family supports close at hand. I’ve heard it said that in Alaska, friends become like family because our families of origin are far away. Prior to moving to Seward, I’ve always lived in larger towns and cities, with family connections within driving distance. In Alaska, that’s no longer the case for me or my husband. We’ve come to rely on our friends in Alaska in a way that we have never relied on friends in previous locations. But for children, who have yet to develop strong relationships outside of their immediate families, their options are few, when their immediate families suffer setbacks or undergo the normal strains of life. One example would be seasonal job loss or cutbacks, resulting in less income. Such income loss, in the Seward area, often results in less food availability, particularly as healthy foods become seasonally more costly.

Andrew Scrivo is a Seward local and the coordinator of Seward’s Sources of Strength Program, a peer mentorship suicide prevention program that operates within the middle and high schools. He and his wife previously lived in small villages in southwest Alaska. Scrivo mentioned hunger and lack of medical access as other challenges unique to Alaska. Even in Seward, where we are fortunate to be on the road system, Alaskans experience hunger due to the high cost of food paired with the seasonal availability of work. Scrivo mentioned that “Alaska’s child welfare systems are overloaded,” which has resulted in diminished access to medical services for Seward youth.

To talk about ACES is to think of the converse, resiliency. I will write more about this topic in a future column. But for the time being, let’s suffice it to say that for all of the challenges that exist for youth, there are corollaries, and hopeful actions happening to combat these challenges. I see this on a daily basis. In my own life, trusted adults other than my parents played crucial roles in my development. In the Seward community, our schools provide a plethora of resources to the youth who attend. Our community rallies together and the fact that our youth have safe, stable environments is one of the most crucial aspects of combating ACEs.

In October, Daniel Adams, a nationwide trainer for the Sources of Strength program spent two days in Seward, training adults, middle and high school students on how to provide hope, help and strength to their peers. During the course of the training, Adams recommended a book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” a training and personal experience book on how trauma impacts the human body. I’ll include a quote: “Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way that mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think” (page 21,  Van der Kolk). Van der Kolk explains that earlier traumas can be reactivated, and when they are, the body experiences the physical sensations of this original trauma. This phenomenon explains why ACEs have such long-lasting impacts. For instance, even once periods of hunger have passed, a child remains vigilant about the fact that food scarcity may affect them again in the future.

The simple fact of knowing about ACEs can be, paradoxically, beneficial. As our community recognizes the importance of providing safe, stable and nurturing spaces and relationships to youth and their caregivers, Seward can continue to grow our resiliency. There are a variety of self tests available online, one is located here: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean

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