Collaborative intent on easing effects of traumatic childhood experiences
MIDDLETOWN — Rebecca Lemanski wants those who suffer from traumatic childhood experiences to know they are not alone.
In fact, it’s the vision of the founder of the Community Resilience Collaborative of Middlesex County and psychiatrist Susie Wiet, who pioneered the project in Utah, to build a network of professionals in the field intent on changing the culture surrounding traumatic experiences.
Wiet, who practices in Salt Lake City, is founder of Utah’s Trauma-Resilience Collaborative.
National and local leaders and professionals, including those representing the Middlesex United Way, Community Health Center, Clifford Beers Clinic, Middletown Board of Education and Middlesex Hospital, recently gathered at Middlesex Community College for a six-hour leadership roundtable on trauma and resilience.
“You all are the leaders,” Lemanski told those in the audience, there to network and share their expertise on the subject. The collaborative’s mission is to inspire a paradigm shift in how people view behavior.
“Instead of viewing behavior as a problem, we can begin to see behavior as communication.
“Instead of asking what’s wrong with you, we’re going to ask what happened to you.”
The collaborative works to help people who live with adverse childhood experiences — some of which may not realize their distress has been negatively affecting them their entire lives.
An individual’s ACES score, determined by a 10-question worksheet, is based on the instances of abuse, neglect, loss of a parent due to divorce or incarceration, witnessing parental violence, substance abuse or mental illness, according to the collaborative.
Toxic stress can lead to greater risk for health problems throughout one’s life, including diabetes, obesity, liver disease, cancer, stroke, heart disease, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, smoking and addiction, Wiet said during her PowerPoint presentation.
This distress can alter one’s heart rate and blood pressure (which can cause hypertension and arterial plaque) the immune system (infections, cancer and inflammation), bone and connective tissue (fatigue, arthritis, weak joins and bones), muscle mass, fat and protein metabolism, and cognition and brain function, (insomnia, anxiety, depression and inattention).
The ACES pyramid is based on a 1998 study by physician and researcher Dr. Vincent J. Felitti. It found ACES scores are strongly related to the development risk factors for disease, as well as well-being throughout life, Wiet said.
Her keynote was followed by a screening of the documentary, “Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope” and a question-and-answer session and discussion facilitated by Alice Forrester, CEO of Clifford Beers Clinic in New Haven.
The documentary reveals toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time and early death, according to the collaborative. It explores a central theme: “The child may not remember, but the body does.”
Wiet spoke about the neurobiology of trauma and resilience, and shared her challenges and successes in making Utah a trauma-resiliency focused state. The more she researched ACES, Wiet realized not only she wanted to spread the word on this revolutionary way of looking at human behavior, but employ it in her work.
Wiet knows trauma first hand, as the mother of a child recovering from cancer.
Even with her extensive experience, Wiet had more than a few reservations. “Who was I to talk about trauma? I felt like this little peon — I’m just a psychiatrist. I see kids.”
She became passionate about the findings and how they could potentially help thousands of people. Soon after, Wiet put together a program for the community.
“We had no venue, we had no money, we had no speakers, we had nothing at all planned, and we were this fledgling group of people who had this idea,” she said.
After she’d put together a survival panel comprised mostly of 30-year-olds, she asked them, ‘how did we miss your trauma?’
“No one had ever asked this question.”
This shift in thinking was meant to convey a new perspective on childhood traumas. “They had very serious, train-wreck lives that could have been prevented,” Wiet said.
While she was soliciting feedback from community stakeholders representing a broad spectrum of services, one physician, in his late 60s or early 70s, director of a health department, said what he had learned.
“‘That was so powerful’ she recalled him saying of the session. “He started tearing up. He said, ‘I wish I had known this for my entire career, and for the rest of my life, I will practice completely differently because I see people so differently.”
As Wiet and Lemanski tell it, ACES seems to have that effect on many who learn about the repercussions of stressful events.
In 2014, armed with a bachelor of arts in elementary education and a year of graduate social work education, Lemanski took part in an ACES presentation — something she had never heard about.
“With this new knowledge and perspective in mind, my world view changed, and the way I view behavior was changed forever.” That realization prompted her subsequent intensive review of research on the topic, she said.
The CRC’s next event, A Call to Action, a Regional Academy on Resilience, is tentatively scheduled for March. It will be an in-depth exchange of information on violence, abuse and trauma prevention and intervention. The collaborative meets one to two times a month at the Middlesex United Way in Middletown.
For information, contact Lemanski at email@example.com or visit acesconnection.com.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Dr. Susie Wiet is a psychiatrist, not a psychologist; and the ACES pyramid is based on a 1998 study by physician and researcher Dr. Vincent J. Felitti.