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Documentary Highlights Links Between Illness And Adverse Childhood Experiences

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It used to be conventional wisdom among medical and scientific professionals that young children couldn't recall abuse or neglect they had witnessed or endured. But the award-winning documentary "Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope " explodes that myth.

In a groundbreaking move on Friday, public television stations across Florida aired "Resilience" – partly to honor the victims and survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, and partly in a statewide effort to keep violence and other trauma from metastasizing into mental and physical illness.

"Ah, you know, the kids are young, they're very resilient, they don't know what's going on – they won't remember, anyway," the narrator says at the film's opening "Well, the child may not remember, but the body remembers."

In fact, trauma is common as the documentary shows. "Resilience" is about the impact of what's called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, on a person's physical and mental health. In the late 1990s, Dr. Robert Anda was involved with the first surveys to ask patients about emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; the loss of a parent, or having been exposed to hunger or violence.

"Twenty-eight percent had been physically abused…27 percent grew up with substance abuse in their homes…13 percent witnessed their mothers being physically abused…one in five had been sexually abused," Anda recalled. "I was the first person to see this data, while I was in my study. I had the software on my computer, I saw this and I wept."

According to the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, more than two-thirds of the population report experiencing one adverse childhood experience, and nearly a quarter have experienced three or more. The more ACEs you've experienced, the greater your risk of poor outcomes later in life, including severely increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, addiction, smoking, poor academic achievement, missed work and early death.

"We tend to divide health into mental health and physical health," says Chris Lolley, the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Florida. "But the truth is, they're not divided. They're one."

The stress of childhood trauma – like regularly being hit or belittled, or witnessing domestic violence – can physically harm the body and brain. As "Resilience" shows, the study of how ACEs affect health began in an obesity clinic in San Diego, where Dr. Vincent Felitti was shocked that half his patients were dropping out of the program, despite their success at losing weight. Then he learned 55 percent of them had been sexually abused as children.

"I vividly remember thinking, 'This can't be true. People would know. Somebody would have told me,'" Ferlitti said. "Wasn't that what medical school was for?" 

When you look at adverse childhood experiences, they're actually a stronger predictor of risk of ischemic heart disease than any of the traditional risk factors. ~ Dr. Nadine Burke Harris

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris was just as shocked to learn that life expectancy could vary by 11 years, depending on the San Francisco neighborhood where one was born.

"When you look at adverse childhood experiences, they're actually a stronger predictor of risk of ischemic heart disease than any of the traditional risk factors, when you think about high blood pressure, high cholesterol or even smoking," she said. "And yet I was never trained on this one day in medical school."

Today we know more about the damage caused by ACEs. As Lolley says, healers tend more often to ask "What happened to you?" instead of "What's wrong with you?"

Florida is the first state to show "Resilience" – just as the state marks the first anniversary of the Parkland shootings. Lolley hopes the documentary will help build more resilience statewide.

"The involvement by the families and students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas…this movement…the adverse childhood experiences study…and the resulting knowledge, scientifically, that prevention actually helps, and saves lives, and dollars, and prevents injuries, can only serve us well as we move into the future," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates depression alone to cause 200 million lost workdays each year, at a cost to employers of $17 to $44 million. Yet as "Resilience" points out, of the $3 trillion spent annually in the U. S. on health care, just five percent goes to prevention.

For information and resources visit wfsu.org/resilience.