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ACEs, Part I: Addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences in the community

Adverse environments and climates also impact the 10 identified adverse childhood experiences.
New Hanover County Resiliency Task Force
Adverse environments and climates also impact the 10 identified adverse childhood experiences.

Later this month, Brunswick and New Hanover County commissioners are set to host ‘Resilient Communities’ week. One of the tenets of being ‘resilient’ is responding to stress in a healthy way, which means understanding the ACEs — or adverse childhood experiences — that can cause that stress.

You can find Part II of the series here and Part III of the series here.

The work of resilience has its roots in the seminal Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs study. Published some 25 years ago, it designed a 10-question survey about physical, psychological, and substance abuse.

J’vaneté Skiba is the assistant director of equity, education, and engagement for New Hanover County’s Resiliency Task Force. She said this study documented the correlation between adverse childhood experiences and health outcomes later in life.

“A child who's experienced six or more ACEs has a 20-year shorter life expectancy — which when I learned that, blew my mind. And that's just from the stress of maybe having a family member or parent incarcerated, or having a parent with mental illness or substance abuse in the home or neglect,” Skiba said.

These are the 10 identified adverse childhood experiences.
These are the 10 identified adverse childhood experiences.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, having at least one ACE is common — and, if left unchecked, they can be detrimental.

ACEs affect mostly everyone.
ACEs affect mostly everyone.

But resiliency work isn’t limited to people with ACEs, because all humans have a biological system that springs into action when there’s something threatening — real or perceived.

“It’s not mental weakness. It is really about [people’s] biology. And the community resiliency model specifically gets to the heart of that. We all have a nervous system. So that to me, that's a unifier,” Skiba said.

Skiba added, “Our bodies do not discern between our mental experience of what stresses us out and our physical experience, it's all the same thing, so you can fake calm as much as you want, but it shows up in your body.”

Tina Pearson is the director of the New Hanover County Resiliency Task Force. She said it’s important for people to be self-aware about their stress levels.

“So people can understand how it manifests in their body and then help to navigate strengthening that resiliency, which will help them be better parents, better neighbors, better employees because it impacts all of us,” Pearson said.

Bo Dean is a senior human resources analyst for New Hanover County and co-chairs the Resiliency Task Force.

“So if I've got all this stuff living in me, and all day long, I'm just sitting there with clenched fists and a hardback. And I'm just like, ‘Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am.’ Then what's going to end up happening is when I leave at 5:00, or even during the day, something has to help me reconcile that,” Dean said.

Dean said if ACEs and the resulting stress are not reconciled over time they could lead to maladaptive behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and physical and emotional aggression.

Part of being ‘resilient’, is confronting these stressors. As Pearson said, sometimessimple mental exercises can help.

“If you change one little thing, [for example,] I'm going to notice everything that's blue while I'm walking, and you're like that's just silly, but you start paying attention, there's a blue sign, there's a blue car, there is a blue sticker on that light pole, there is a blue flyer over there, there's a blue flower, a blue bird. And the next thing you know, you're focused on the ‘here and now’ you're breathing deeper, your heart rates coming down, you've knocked your brain off of that stressful situation, and you're back in your logical brain,” she said.

Dean said one challenge is working against the idea that you can “suck it up.”

“There's a time when people say, ‘Well, why don't they just get over it and move on?’ Okay, I'm hearing that," Dean said. "That's a survival instinct, maybe because people just want to not have to necessarily deal with it, but that's kind of what this is, it's about acknowledging it, because until we could acknowledge that there were these things that are operating, how can you move on?”

And there is hope for adults and kids alike. Amy Read is a community trainer specializing in the community resilience model and mental health first aid for Coastal Horizons.

The research is showing us that positive childhood experiences can help mitigate or at least counterbalance those adversities,” she said.

And according to a 2019 CDC study, if ACEs are successfully addressed there are reductions in serious health conditions and major socioeconomic challenges.

According to Merrick et al, 2019 "estimated that preventing ACEs could lead to substantial reductions in the following outcomes:
(Merrick et al, 2019) "estimated that preventing ACEs could lead to substantial reductions in these outcomes."

But the work of confronting toxic stress or ACEs takes commitment and long-term practice, according to Read.

“I could take a workshop and learn to speak Spanish, and by the time I leave, I might could have enough to say the basics," Read said. "But then if I don't do anything else with it…"

New Hanover County’s Resiliency Task Force offers monthly community workshops on positively responding to things like ACEs and everyday stressors.

Editor's note: New Hanover County initially told WHQR the resiliency event was in June. It will actually run from April 29 to May 6. Both the Brunswick County and New Hanover County Commissioners will have to vote for the resiliency 'proclamation' to take place.


Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR