Spartanburg County is making great strides in improving health and well-being in the community.
We have successful initiatives such as The Road to Better Health with five priority areas (improve access to care, reduce childhood obesity, improve birth outcomes, reduce tobacco use, improve behavioral health access), the Childhood Obesity Taskforce, the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the Spartanburg Academic Movement.
Recently, we have focused on the neglected area of behavioral health with the Behavioral Health Taskforce as outlined in an op-ed published on Feb. 6 (“An upstream strategy for mental health,” by Tom Barnet). Our jails and emergency rooms are filled with individuals who would be better served with appropriate mental health services, and this taskforce has taken action to address this concern.
These programs are important with good outcomes, but we also need to bring the issue of child abuse and neglect to the table and focus on awareness and prevention of this epidemic problem. The abuse and neglect of children is a leading public health problem in Spartanburg and in the nation.
This includes physical, sexual and psychological abuse and neglect of basic needs, including educational neglect. In most cases, children are victims of multiple forms of abuse. These children who experience such traumatic childhood environments are at greater risk for lifelong behavioral, emotional and physical problems.
Surprisingly few people who assume the responsibility of taking care of our children ever receive any formal training in recognizing the signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect, let alone learn the process to follow once abuse or neglect is suspected. These professionals include educators, day care providers and health care professionals, among others, who are legally mandated to report suspicions of child maltreatment to law enforcement and social services.
A staggering correlation exists between traumatic childhood experiences and poor physical health, behavioral health, obesity, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency and teen pregnancy. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (www.acestudy.org) is a large and ongoing study linking childhood abuse and neglect to long-term health problems.
The study, conducted by Dr. Robert F. Anda with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Vincent J. Felitti with Kaiser Permanente, analyzed health data from more than 17,000 patients, and the results were overwhelming in regard to the health, social and economic risks that result from childhood trauma.
Adverse childhood experiences not only harm the individual but also have a crippling effect on the economy with greater health care expenses and loss of human potential. For example, in Spartanburg County, the immediate and long-term costs of child sexual abuse alone exceed $26 million annually. Prevent Child Abuse America has estimated the total annual cost of child abuse and neglect in the U.S. to be as high as $94 billion.
Prolonged traumatic experiences in childhood are linked to disrupted neurodevelopment with lifelong consequences. These traumatic experiences cause a physiological reaction that leads to increased production of cortisol and other hormones.
This chemical response to stress is designed to mobilize us during a crisis (fight or flight), but excessive amounts of these chemicals circulating in the body damage the architecture of the developing brain.
This repeated exposure to trauma impairs learning, memory, impulse control and self-regulation. The threshold for responding to stress becomes lowered, and these children are at higher risk of developing poor patterns of behavior. When stress hormones remain elevated over long periods of time, they produce “wear and tear” on the brain and certain biological systems. This effect, called allostatic load, is associated with vulnerability to all types of major health problems later in life.
If we focus on education and prevention of early childhood trauma, we effectively eliminate many of the costly problems associated with chronic health issues. Additionally, if we facilitate healthier, supportive family relationships, we can repair damage and mediate the effects of toxic stress.
Let’s make child abuse prevention a priority area in our public health initiatives.