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San Diego County Responds To Growing Link Between Childhood Trauma And Health

Jasiri Lacey shares a few words about his brother Rickquese McCoy, who was ki...

Photo by Dennis Wood

Above: Jasiri Lacey shares a few words about his brother Rickquese McCoy, who was killed in a June 30, 2012 shooting in City Heights.

San Diego County Health and Human Services director Nick Macchione sent a letter to his department last week detailing a sweep of training and programmatic tweaks to get his entire staff, and the services they offer, trauma-informed.

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The state interviewed 9,500 adults and found, compared to those who did not experience trauma as children, those who had repeated traumatic experiences were:

500% more likely to have depression

350% tore likely to smoke tobacco

90% more likely to binge drink

63% more likely to have a heart attack

60% more likely to be obese

Put simply, he wants the people who provide food stamp, unemployment, mental health, Medi-Cal and disability help in the region to be better prepared to work with people experiencing trauma.

The move comes as state health leaders are learning more about the health impacts of childhood trauma.

The California Department of Public Health released its first comprehensive study of childhood trauma Friday. It found 61 percent of California adults have experienced some level of childhood trauma that makes them significantly more likely to engage in risky behaviors or have costly health problems. Experiences as extreme as physical abuse or as common as having divorced parents can be factors, according to the study.

Macchione's letter isn't the first time trauma, which is increasingly at the center of national and statewide discussions on health, has come up in the region. Macchione himself has pushed for trainings. Cherokee Point Elementary School in City Heights has caught national attention for its three-year effort to draft trauma-informed school discipline policies. And residents on 44th Street in City Heights asked San Diego Unified in 2013 to pay attention to trauma after children in the neighborhood witnessed a double homicide days before they were to return to school from summer break.

San Diego Unified is now urging teachers and other school staff to attend voluntary trauma training through the County Office of Education next month. The nonprofit San Diego Youth Services is putting on the sessions. Its director, Steven Jella, said recognizing the effects of trauma can help teachers deal with difficult behavior.

"How does the brain work? How does it react to things that happen to it? And ultimately, how then do you respond to the brain when it's reacting to things that may or may not be about the things we think it is in the moment," Jella said.

Don Buchheit, director of student services for the San Diego County Office of Education, describes the philosophy — which he said should be applied to learning and behavior issues — this way:

"It's the difference in saying to a student, 'What's wrong with you?' and 'Can you tell me a little bit about what's happened to you?'"

Buchheit said his office trains up to 600 education professionals throughout the county each year through 12 workshops. Not all are explicitly about trauma, he said, but all touch on the issue.

"I think people are talking about it more," Buchheit said. "They’re looking at issues of violence and drop out rates and asking 'why is this happening?' Mental health seems to be the consistent piece that keeps coming up as the main variable."

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