“But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16, ESV)
If you could do it all over again, what would you do different?
A friend asked this question concerning my education. I told him that instead of majoring in accounting, if I had it to do over again, I’d major in theology, and then I’d major in psychology. In ministry you need to know God and to know a lot about God, but you also need to be a student of the human condition. Know all you can about God and learn all you can about people.
John Calvin wrote in the first line of his The Institutes of the Christian Religion, "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves."
As people of faith, we have spent a lot of time learning about God, but not so much discovering what makes people tick. We observe, but do we really learn about us and our fellow humans in a systematic way? With this thought in mind, I’m going to tell a true story and an interesting discovery about how fearfully and wonderfully we are made. I'm also going to share how you can become more effective in helping people by understanding how adverse experiences may affect human flourishing.
In 1985, the chief of Kaiser Permanente’s (KP) Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, CA, couldn’t figure out why more than half of the people in his obesity clinic were dropping out. To be more accurate, it was 50% dropping out each year for five years straight.
If you’re like me, you’ve done a few diets and bailed out on many of them. Who hasn’t? But this was different. This was a program for people 300 Lbs. or more overweight. And get this, the people were succeeding when they dropped out. They were on a roll (pun not intended) losing more than 100 Lbs. each when they quit.
The search for the mystery behind the dropouts got very involved. It took on a span of 25 years and 17,000 participants, involving researchers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and KP. The researchers found some commonalities with the dropouts: All of them had been born at normal weight. None of them gained the weight slowly over several years. The weight gain was abrupt and then stopped and stayed. If weight was lost, it was regained again over a very short time.
The doctor, being at a loss on the data decided to do face to face interviews. Nothing came from this either…until.
The breakthrough occurred because of a mistake in how the doctor asked a particular question. Remember, the doctor started doing personal interviews. With one patient, instead of asking, “How old were you when you were first sexually active?” he mistakenly asked, “How much did you weigh when you were first sexually active?” The woman he was interviewing answered, “forty pounds”, then she burst into tears. Then she added, “I was four years old with my father.”
The doctor didn’t know what to do with that. Then, about ten days later, he ran into the same thing. In modifying the questions, he realized that every other person was providing information about childhood sexual abuse. He was dumbfounded, thinking that this can’t be true. So, he asked other colleagues to do the interviews on the next 100 patients to see if they did or did not find the same things. They did! Most of the 286 people interviewed had been sexually abused as children.
You’ve read this far. Hang in here just a little longer. Now you are going to see the connection with abuse and food. The doctor discovered that these people, who were hundreds of pounds overweight, did not see their weight as a problem, but as a solution. Eating was a fix. It was salving a past trauma and providing a security to avoid further abuse. Eating soothed their anxiety, fear, anger and often, depression. It was like a drug. Not eating increased all these negative emotions. Being hundreds of pounds overweight also made them less susceptible to abuse. It made them invisible. Often, people who have been abused and sexually abused want to disappear. They want to hide. Overweight people in our society are ignored, or at least discounted.
Here comes the big mind shift: The problem, as the doctor saw it, was food. They were eating too much. From his research and interviews he came to believe that the problem was not food. Food had become a biochemical coping method (like alcohol, drugs, violence, sex, work, etc.) to escape the intense anxiety, fear, anger, and depression.
Previously medical professionals, counselors and social workers had thought that addiction was the problem, and certainly addiction is a problem, but it’s not the real problem. Many now have come to believe that for many, turning to drugs, and other harmful behaviors is an expected response to serious childhood trauma. The trauma may be sexual abuse but could involve other things as well. It could be the loss of a parent or sibling. It could be witnessing abuse in the home. It could even be food insecurity.
In many cases, what young people and even older people turn to ease their trauma is harmful. It creates a whole other set of problems on top of the trauma and even adding to it.
Going down this path, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente ended up interviewing almost 18,000 participants to learn about childhood trauma. They discovered 10 types of adverse childhood experiences or ACEs. The 10 types are divided into three categories: Abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.
A scoring system was developed to identify a person’s ACEs score. One point is given for each of the 10 types. If a person had none of the events listed as ACEs in their background, their score would be zero. If they lived under a verbally abusive parent only, then their score would be one.
What the research found was that the more ACEs a child has, the higher the risk of developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, COPD, depression, and cancer. Also, people with high (4 or more) ACEs scores are more likely to be violent, have multiple marriages, and suffer depression. In other words, these adverse childhood experiences are strong, long, and cumulative. What happened to you at four years old can send you to the hospital at 50.
If you’ve read this far, then you’re getting the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It would seem the case here. But there is more, oh so much more.
We are in a mental health epidemic. I wish it were not so, but we are. I believe Jesus is the answer to a person in trauma, but the trauma is its own kind of prison which makes it hard for God’s people to know how to help. We need understanding. We need instruction.
This is why the Connect Now one hour overview of Adverse Childhood Experiences vs Resilience is so important. This free online seminar will help ministers, teachers, children’s workers, and volunteers understand how mental health issues affect children’s education and life development. Krista Gonce is the presenter. To learn more about the seminar, Krista and how to sign up for this online seminar click the button below.