Mental Health Month and ACE

It’s coming up to the end of Mental Health Month and I wanted to talk about how we are all affected by mental health, not just those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression.

No one had a perfect childhood, no one! I consider my childhood reasonably healthy. I went to private school, I lived in a safe neighborhood, we went to church once a week. It was a “normal” childhood, but like so many families, my parents divorced when I was 12. While I feel that I coped well with this situation, it was still a stressful time where we changed schools, moved to a new city, and went from a stay-at-home mom to a working mom household.

Many people have similar situations to me, some worse, some better. We deal with it and we move on, right? As it turns out, we aren’t really dealing with it at all. Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control performed one of the largest childhood abuse and neglect studies between 1995 and 1997. 17,000 adults were asked about certain childhood exposures, now known as Adverse Childhood Events, or ACEs, and about their current health status. A staggering 2/3 of participants had at least one exposure while 1 in 5 participants had at least 3 [2]. So why were they looking at this? They wanted to see how these events affected a child’s future health in adulthood, and what they found was that the more ACEs you have, the higher likelihood of having chronic health problems and higher use of the medical system.

“Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt; a 2- to 4-fold increase in smoking, poor self-rated health, ≥50 sexual intercourse partners, and sexually transmitted disease; and a 1.4- to 1.6-fold increase in physical inactivity and severe obesity.”[1]

Want to know your score? Take the quiz here:

It has always been known that children that have difficult lives or have a traumatic event happen to them at a young age, struggle with these events later in life and have higher risk for mental health concerns. It is not surprising to see this result, but the fact that these events lead to higher risks of non-mental health disease, that is surprising. Not only do patients with higher ACE scores have increased smoking, drinking, and risky sexual behavior, they also have a statistically significant increase in heart disease, diabetes, COPD, strokes, and cancers. They live shorter lives. They access the health system more frequently. And they often have chronic pain and fatigue that is never well treated or controlled. It is clear that these childhood stressors are in some way impacting our future health and shortening lives. So what can be done? Often, just recognizing that you had a few or many events in your childhood and realizing that it is effecting your current health, is enough to help. The best plan though, is recognizing this possibility and then using counseling as a tool to help cope with these prior events. Counseling is shown to help patients see the connection between these events and their health, and in turn, you can create better health habits and cope with stress better. I am a big supporter of counseling, in fact, I think EVERYONE needs a dose of counseling from time-to-time. Counseling is not just talking about your feelings, it is recognizing unhealthy patterns, coping with life changes or stressors, and using a third party to help you through difficult times. It is so much more than just talking.


I think the best thing to take away from this, is that more people than not are exposed to stressful events in life. Recognizing those events and learning to cope with them is not just good for your mental health, but also your physical health. In addition, lets recognize these behaviors and reduce the next generations exposure to these events. As Mental Health Month comes to a close, take an account of your own mental health. If you are not happy with were you are at, lets take the necessary steps to get to a better place, whether that is counseling, therapy, or medication, reach out to your doctor, you might be surprised how much they can help.

To read the entire article on ACE’s, click here:



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