Last month community members from all over the Southern Kenai Peninsula came together to discuss Alaska’s struggle with opioid addiction, and to find ways to come together as a community to respond to this epidemic in a constructive way. The road to recovery is not simple. What is clear is that strong and healthy connections within the community, coupled with institutional support for individuals in recovery, are key to decreasing rates of opioid use and addiction.
To effectively confront this public health issue, the community needs to understand what causes people to walk down this path in the first place. Although there are many risk factors involved in drug addiction, current research efforts point to one specific factor that not only increases the likelihood for drug use and addiction, but is correlated to a wide range of chronic health issues. This trigger is a collection of events called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs.
ACEs are defined as ongoing traumatic events that occur during childhood — everything from abuse or neglect, to growing up with a family member who is incarcerated, to exposure to chronic mental illness in the household. Recent research agrees that traumatic events in childhood disrupt the normal course of a child’s brain development when a child does not have supportive relationships with caring adults. This abnormal brain development puts children at higher risk to make unhealthy decisions, leading to potentially larger health consequences down the road.
The concept of ACEs and its effects on health is particularly important for Alaskans to understand, as over 64 percent of Alaskans have experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences in their lifetime, more than in any other state. And because ACEs can be experienced by entire communities or passed down through generations in cases of long-term trauma.
Having traumatic experiences does not doom any child to addiction or other health issues. The human body and mind are complex and capable of adapting to challenges. Children can fully heal from traumatic events with sufficient resources. The key to the ability to overcome ACEs is resilience. Resilience has been identified as the most important factor in the ability to heal from traumatic childhood experiences. So how do we build resilience in our community?
Ironically, for a child to develop resilience they must face some adversity. You can’t learn how to handle challenges without facing any. But it is vital that children also have people around them to help them weather the tough times, recover, and learn healthy coping mechanisms. Problems arise when children without support networks are faced with persistent, “toxic” stress, from which they do not have sufficient time to recover before they are hit with another traumatic experience. This consistent stress without relief affects a child’s brain development, rewiring it in an abnormal way to cope with the persistent stress. It is thought that this rewiring of the brain can lead children and adolescents to make riskier health choices.
It makes sense then, that to decrease the number of ACEs and increase resilience in a community, we need to encourage stronger relationships. Not only between child and parent, but between child and community members as well. The parent-child relationship is the most important factor, but it is not the only factor in building resilience. As they grow, children and adolescents spend more and more time in the community without parents by their side. The same lessons that they learn from their parents about how to handle challenges can be reinforced and enriched by community members.
It is for this reason Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnership (MAPP) and the Southern Kenai Peninsula Resilience Coalition (SKPRC) invite community to the MAPP quarterly meeting this Friday to become oriented to the steps the Resilience Coalition is taking to build resiliency in the community, and to help each community member find his or her role in this project. Whether you are a parent, teacher, service provider, business owner, or part of a community organization, every one of us has a part to play in building resilience. Please join the discussion this Friday, June 16, from 8:30 a.m. to noon at Kachemak Bay Campus in Pioneer Hall. For more information visit www.mappofskp.net.
Amy Woodruff is the SKP Resilience Coalition Coordinator as well as the prevention coordinator at Haven House.