“We’ve done enough planning, it’s time to act.” It was a simple enough message from Vi Lyles, speaking less than 24 hours after she won the city’s mayoral election. Lyles, a last minute addition to the crowd of more than 250 screening the film “Resilence” at the UNC Charlotte Center City Campus, delivered impromptu comments that drew a standing ovation.
The civic leaders there convened to learn about and to heighten awareness of the profound impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. ACEs are negative life experiences that children undergo very early in their lives (0-3) when they face continued toxic stress and trauma. Indisputable brain science clearly shows that ACEs place children at disproportionate risk for deeply serious and recurrent health and social problems not only during childhood, but throughout their lives. Toxic stress not only affects children’s brains, it negatively influences their biology, hurting their long-term health at a very early age.
If you think ACEs are a plague of poverty, they’re not. The original population studies that validated the connection between childhood ACEs and later-life health outcomes, including chronic diseases and early death, looked at primarily white, educated upper middle class people. It can affect anyone and must be taken seriously.
When a child is raised in an environment where emotional and verbal abuse, violence, mental illness, substance abuse, divorce or having an incarcerated relative is part of their experience, toxic stress and poor health are very real risks. Children who are not healthy cannot learn or be productive members of society. But as the title of the film “Resilience” implies, there is hope.
Toxic stress and ACEs keep many of Charlotte’s communities from reaching their full potential. Certainly, the Leading on Opportunity Task Force’s report released in March recognized this impact. All of us need to understand and focus on this critical determinant of health outcomes and community wellness. Early and coordinated trauma-informed care must be carefully designed, coordinated and expanded if we are to move the needle on social mobility and community health.
As long as there is a collective will to do something about this challenge, the dire health consequences that result from ACES can be prevented. The Winer Family Foundation and the UNC Charlotte College of Health and Human Services will develop partnerships with non-profit, grassroots, corporate, healthcare and governmental agencies concerned with child well-being. Our intention is to invest in public awareness, develop comprehensive training programs, and to build and execute a cohesive strategy aimed at reversing, mitigating and possibly eliminating ACEs.
Mayor Lyles’ straightforward message underscores a pressing reality for the long-term health and strength of the Charlotte region on the issue of promoting child health: It is time to stop talking and time to start doing. We look forward to having you join us in this effort.
Winer is a co-founder of the Winer Family Foundation. Fey-Yensan is dean of the UNC Charlotte College of Health and Human Services. Emails: liz@winerfamilyfoundation