Can a child’s environment make them sick?

A commentary on adverse childhood experiences research.

It wasn’t long ago that issues such as lack of clean water and good sewage were cause for concern. Today we are lucky to live in a country where this is no longer a public health issue and a subject that no longer needs to be discussed.

However, we continue to be surrounded by other pressing public health issues that often go unrecognised and remain unaddressed. A recent series of discussions called What Shapes Health? explores the social and environmental factors that affect our well-being.

People, and specifically children, get ill because of complex environmental factors acting together to create toxic stress which particularly affects the physiology of brains and body systems.

We are now in a situation where mental wellbeing is recognised as the biggest health issue and yet root causes remain largely unaddressed. We often see children being treated for symptoms with counselling in schools for example. Yet the fundamentals of prevention remain largely ignored by policymakers. Instead we see an increase in prescriptions for children ranging from antipsychotics to anti anxiety medication and the incidence of ADHD diagnosis is skyrocketing.

Dr Burke Harris, a guiding light when it comes to addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), questions the effectiveness of this approach, saying clearly that a diagnosis of ADHD is often wrongheaded because it hides the underlying cause, which is commonly environmental stress and often trauma. She worked with Felitti and Anda who back in the 1990s discovered the link between early childhood traumas and health in later life.

“I had no idea how much suffering there was hidden in the background of the lives of these people during their childhoods.” (Rob Anda)

Childhood obesity is starting to hit the headlines more and this too is being addressed with treatment rather than preventative strategies. The original research for ACEs started out looking into the obesity epidemic and Dr Burke Harris and her team discovered the causes were much more fundamental and wide-ranging (from substance abuse and alcoholism to parental mental illness) and that any number of these can cause life-long issues on the child in that environment.

Mental illness starts in childhood and affects the rest of your life. It is more prevalent in poor disadvantaged communities where adversities pile up and damage lives before they have even had a chance to begin. At Our Time we work to address this and are pushing to ensure something is done about it.

Parental mental illness is a key risk factor because it damages attachment and isolates the family, putting huge stress on both the parents and children. By starting here we can prevent the intergenerational cycle of illness, adversity and poor life chances. But we need to address it now instead of living in denial that these problems exist.

For the full transcript of the discussion you can find the article here.