Last week, funders with wide-ranging interests in education, health, and children and youth came out to hear from Dr. Matthew Biel, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Georgetown University Medical Center, the opening speaker for WRAG’s 2016 Public Education Speaker Series. Dr. Biel discussed brain development and the impact of toxic stress on child development.
Dr. Biel explained the difference between “good stress” that is manageable and brief and “tolerable stress” that emerges from difficult situations, but can be buffered in children by capable adults. “Toxic stress,” on the other hand, is “chronic, unrelenting, and unbuffered by adults.” Toxic stress leaves the child’s ability to cope “overwhelmed.” He grounded his comments in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control. The higher the number of adverse conditions an individual experienced during childhood, the higher the ACEs score, and the higher the ACEs score, the more dire the life outcomes. Consider a comparison of people with a zero ACEs score to people with an ACEs score of 4. Those with a 4 were:
- 2 times more likely to be smokers
- 12 times more likely to attempt suicide
- 7 times more likely to be alcoholic
- 10 times more likely to abuse intravenous drugs
And, if the ACEs score was 6, their lifespan was shortened by 20 years.
Dr. Biel was clear that he was not blaming the victims –children—or their parents, who may be in circumstances that create high ACEs scores, or who are dealing with the impact of toxic stress themselves. His message was that experiences in utero to age three are embedded biologically in children and affect them for the rest of their lives.
He outlined two levels of intervention:
- Introduce effective interventions that will buffer the effects of toxic stress through promoting healthy relationships; and,
- Pursue public policies that reduce the occurrence of toxic stress by addressing:
- Housing instability
- Food insecurity
- Neighborhood safety
- Untreated mental illness
- Lack of access to social capital
- Over incarceration
- Systemic racism and discrimination
If Dr. Biel was any indication of what we have to look forward to, this year’s series will provide important guidance as funders work to improve educational outcomes in our region.