U.S. Politicians Now “Trauma Informed”—Should We Be Hopeful?

Bruce Levine, PhD
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In the late 1990s, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study revealed a powerful relationship between childhood trauma and later adult emotional difficulties and physical health problems (previously reported here by Joshua Kendall). Two decades after the ACE Study was published, it has finally become politically correct for U.S. politicians to acknowledge its significance, and for Congress to respond with legislation (previously reported here by Leah Harris). However, U.S. history tells us that even when politicians finally acknowledge an ignored truth, given their allegiance to the U.S. societal status quo, their reactions routinely neglect the most embarrassing implications of that truth.

ACE findings produced two areas of unexpected results for its researchers Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda. The first area was the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences in a relatively well-off population in the United States. The second area was the strength of the relationship between adverse childhood experiences with adult emotional problems and physical health issues—while unsurprising for many ACE victims, this has been groundbreaking for medical authorities.

With respect to prevalence, more than a quarter of subjects grew up in a household with an alcoholic or a drug user; 23% had experienced severe physical abuse; and 28% of women had been sexually abused as children (16% of men). More than half of the subjects reported at least one adverse childhood experience of abuse, neglect, or other household traumatizing exposure; and one-quarter reported two or more such adverse childhood experiences.

It is important to keep in mind that the ACE Study examined middle-to-upper-middle-class subjects (74% had attended college, and all had higher-end medical insurance), and we know from other research that abuse and neglect is far higher for children from financially impoverished households (see the National Incidence Study of Abuse and Neglect).

Marginalizing and Ignoring U.S. Childhood Trauma

The finding that abuse and neglect are so common in well-off U.S. households—where, for example, 28% of girls are sexually abused—is so unpleasant that some defenders of the U.S. societal status quo have attempted to marginalize the ACE study by arguing that it is unreliable because it relies on the memory and credibility of respondents. The reality, Felitti and Anda have responded, is that underreporting of trauma is more likely than overreporting. Common sense tells us that Felitti and Anda are correct as, for example, a woman would be reluctant to discuss her childhood sexual abuse, and that underreporting is far more likely than overreporting.

While ACE findings of the prevalence of household dysfunction in well-off American households is embarrassing for apologists of the U.S. societal status quo, even more taboo—and uncounted in the ACE Study—are adverse childhood experiences outside the household. Such adverse experiences outside the household and uncounted in the ACE Study include childhood trauma created by U.S. societal authorities and institutions with regard to: (1) schooling; (2) psychiatric treatment; and (3) state coercions.

In their schooling, my experience is that what has driven adolescents to feel stressed, hopeless, and suicidal even more often than peer bullying are school authorities’ coercions and threats of dire consequences for academic noncompliance and failure.

Oppressive psychiatric treatment (e.g., the use of drugs to control bothersome behaviors instead of receiving caring for the emotional pain fueling such behaviors) is also a major adverse childhood experience, as Mad in America readers are well aware of.

The adverse childhood experience that dominated my adolescence was the U.S. state terrorism of the Vietnam War and the draft, which filled me with a chronic fear that I was going to get maimed or killed in Vietnam unless I became a fugitive. Today, many adolescents are overwhelmed with anxiety owing to a range of societally generated terrors—e.g., they are all pressured to go to college but well aware that a college degree may result only in a low-paying job, crippling student-loan debt, and failure to avoid becoming one of life’s “losers.”

For a sane society, the most obvious implication of the ACE Study would be prioritizing the prevention of preventable adverse childhood experiences. A sane society would be asking questions about the very nature of a society and culture that creates so much trauma for children.

However, we do not live in a sane society. We live in a society that prioritizes profits for large corporations and power for large institutions. We live in a society in which, for example, the cause of depression and suicide has been, for decades, falsely attributed by psychiatry and Big Pharma to a chemical imbalance theory long known to be untrue—an untruth that has made billions of dollars for drug companies and increased power for psychiatry through increased use of antidepressants which are known to actually increase suicide. This is just one of many examples that we do not live in a sane society.

U.S. Politicians’ Response vs. A Sane Society’s Response

Owing to the great efforts of Felitti, Anda, and others (including those in the Mad in America orbit) getting the word out on the ACE Study, twenty years after its publication, it is no longer possible for politicians to simply ignore its finding of the powerful relationship between childhood trauma and later adult emotional difficulties and physical health problems.

In June of 2019, the RISE From Trauma Act was introduced with bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, its stated purpose: “To improve the identification and support of children and families who experience trauma.” It allocates $50 million in grants, spread over 2020 to 2023, for institutions such as child welfare agencies, hospitals, and schools for research, building awareness, and to assess, prevent, and treat youth and their families who have experienced trauma or at risk of experiencing it.

In her Mad in America report about the RISE From Trauma Act, Leah Harris provides examples of how states have created initiatives in schools to be more “trauma sensitive.” In response to the idea of creating more trauma sensitive schools, one young man I know with an extremely high ACE score  (8 of a possible 10)—but who feels as traumatized by his school experience as by his household ones—was cynical, rhetorically asking me: “Are schools going to include ACE screening day with lice screening day? Are they going to report ACE scores to parents—parents who will then abuse the kid even more for talking to authorities about their shit parents?”

In response to Harris’s Mad in America report, there were many comments by MIA readers who had negatively experienced psychiatric treatment and were concerned that the legislation would result in more such treatment that would be re-traumatizing. Felliti himself has concerns about typical mental health services that primarily treat traumatized patients with drugs, noting, “Back when I was at Kaiser Permanente, I was afraid to send patients to psychiatrists.”

In a sane society, treatment for traumatized young people would be quite different than the treatment routinely provided. A sane society would not equate treatment with drugging the symptoms of trauma; and it would not be self-satisfied with quick-and-easy behavioral “trauma informed focused treatments” (such as “cognitive processing therapy” and “prolonged exposure”). A sane society would recognize that real healing involves providing safe, caring, and loving relationships, which may or may not be possible within a paid therapeutic relationship; and so all efforts would be made to re-make society so that safe, caring, and loving relationships could be found in daily life.

A sane society would also be asking: What is it about U.S. society that creates so many abusive and neglectful adults? A sane society would acknowledge that such adults have themselves likely not only been traumatized as children but continue to be traumatized in their adult lives—e.g., alienated and humiliated in their jobs; and given the general message that they are simply objects and tools, and to the extent that they cannot be used to make some rich asshole even richer or some powerful institution more powerful, they will be discarded. A sane society would not be surprised that such adults often have little patience for normal but sometimes frustrating behaviors of children, and react with abuse and neglect.

It is good that the general public is finally hearing about the ACE Study, but should we be hopeful now that U.S. politicians are “trauma informed”? I’m not.

U.S. politicians, for the most part, create and enable insanity—from insane psychiatric treatments to insane wars. When, for example, U.S. politicians finally acknowledged that the U.S. lost the Vietnam War and that Americans were reluctant fight another war, their “diagnosis” was that Americans suffered from “Vietnam Syndrome,” a reluctance to support wars —the “treatment” for which has obviously not been the end of senseless wars but rather multiple senseless wars with weaker opposition.

So I do not count on U.S. politicians to address the core implications of the ACE findings—the need to re-make U.S. society so as to (1) prevent preventable adverse childhood experiences, and (2) create a society in which healing from trauma can more easily occur—where safe, caring, and loving relationships could be more readily found in daily life. Rather than count on self-serving politicians to challenge the status quo and re-make society, we can only count on ourselves.

12 COMMENTS

  1. “For a sane society, the most obvious implication of the ACE Study would be prioritizing the prevention of preventable adverse childhood experiences.” For one, defaming parents with make believe DSM disorders, and poisoning them with psych drugs, to cover up the abuse of their child, for a child rape covering up religion, should be illegal.

    https://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Culture-Wars-Reclaiming-Prayer/dp/1598868330

    https://virtueonline.org/lutherans-elca-texas-catastrophe-coming-lesson-episcopalians

    “A sane society would be asking questions about the very nature of a society and culture that creates so much trauma for children.” Our society should also start arresting the pedophiles. The US has not been doing this for decades, or longer. Since covering up child abuse for profit has apparently been the job of the psychologists, psychiatrists, religions, and their “mental health” and “social service” minion, for over a century.

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo

    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/

    “In their schooling, my experience is that what has driven adolescents to feel stressed, hopeless, and suicidal even more often than peer bullying are school authorities’ coercions and threats of dire consequences for academic noncompliance and failure.”

    I was able to terrify and close down a “private school for gifted children,” who had a pedophile on their school board, once the medical evidence of the abuse of my child was handed over in 2005. That school chose to close it’s doors forever on 6.6.06, of all days.

    Thankfully, my child did largely heal from the abuse, and go from remedial reading in a public school in first grade, after the abuse, to getting 100% on his state standardized tests in eighth grade.

    But at that point my family was attacked by an insanity spewing school social worker, who wanted to get her grubby little hands on my well behaved, healing, intelligent child. Because, it was eventually confessed to me, by my children’s public school district, that they were not “equipped to deal with the very intelligent children.”

    So I had to send my children off to boarding school for high school. Thankfully, I had been telling my children, since they were very young, that they may need to go to boarding school for high school. Since my brothers and I also ended up in private high schools, due to the incompetence of our public school systems.

    I do agree, “A sane society would recognize that real healing involves providing safe, caring, and loving relationships, which may or may not be possible within a paid therapeutic relationship; and so all efforts would be made to re-make society so that safe, caring, and loving relationships could be found in daily life.” Which is 100% the opposite of what our gas lighting, DSM deluded “mental health” workers have been doing.

    I do also agree, “U.S. politicians, for the most part, create and enable insanity—from insane psychiatric treatments to insane wars.” i personally was drugged up because our insane “mental health” workers, according to medical records, apparently believe distress caused by 9/11/2001 was caused by some sort of “chemical imbalance” in my brain alone. I believe that’s called “political abuse of psychiatry.”

    Unfortunately I agree, we can not “count on self-serving politicians to challenge the status quo and re-make society, we can only count on ourselves.” Our politicians are apparently all controlled by the fraud based globalist banksters, their scientific fraud based “pharmaceutical/medical industrial complex.” And their never ending war mongering and profiteering – as “Dwight D. Eisenhower” ended his presidential term by warning the nation about – the “increasing power of the military-industrial complex.”

  2. As usual, Bruce Levine gets at the heart of the matter. Many people who work on trauma issues believe routine ACEs screening is a bad idea that can potentially be re-traumatizing and shouldn’t be done in schools or medical settings. Trauma should only be discussed in the context of a relationship of mutual trust. The essence of trauma-informed approaches is to assume that everyone is a potential trauma survivor, and to do everything in a trauma- informed way.

  3. I think that what is most important is that we teach survivors to defend themselves, and we should also send some to law school.

    In much of the country, religion makes it just about impossible to prevent familial child abuse, and that is justified by the Self-Reliance Ethic, and by the idea that children need to be broken in order to be Saved.

    It stinks. But we could go further in preventing and prosecuting forms of familial child abuse. And we could do more in giving courts realistic options by creating communes which children can become members of, before they have to be removed from a family.

    • Prosecuting parents actually makes things worse for most kids. Foster care is almost universally traumatizing to kids. It further breaks delicate and damaged familial bonds. Kids are equally likely (if not moreso) to be physically and sexually abused in foster care. Group homes that so many teens end up in are not a better solution, as kids can experience violence from both other kids and (universally low paid/low educated) staff.

      Have you personally experienced foster care or a group home? I’ve experienced foster care, group homes, child psychiatric units and the juvenile justice system. The biggest risk factor for being justice involved is time spent in foster care. The universal condition for those on death row is foster care.

      We need to be responding to harm to kids in ways that reinforce and strengthen familial bonds. We should not be delivering children into the hands of child abusing foster carers and congratulating ourselves for getting them out of harm’s way.

  4. Carried to its logical conclusion, sensitivity to trauma requires the recognition that early childhood trauma is a universal condition of being “civilized” into accommodating “Western” (i.e. capitalist) “values” and expectations. We have all been whipped into submission to one extent or another; trauma is not a special circumstance affecting a particular category of people. Which politicians support the population being “informed” of THIS?

  5. OK here’s a concrete example of being “trauma informed” — the attempt to censor a mural in San Francisco meant to show the truth about George Washington’s involvement in slavery and genocide. I heard a woman claiming to be “trauma informed” psychologist going on about how “trauma is real” and that this mural’s realistic portrayal of early American history should be removed because it is “traumatizing” to students. Better ignorant than “traumatized” I guess.

    This is from Counterpunch, one of Bruce’s favorite publications:
    https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/07/23/whitewashing-american-history-the-wpa-mural-controversy-in-san-francisco/