WASHINGTON (CN) – During its first-ever hearing on the subject, the House Oversight Committee met Thursday with experts and survivors of childhood trauma, a day after an immigrant mother gave emotional testimony about the death of her baby daughter following their stay at a detention center.
Thursday’s hearing comes on the heels of testimony delivered by Yazmin Juarez, the mother of a 19-month-old girl who died after 20 days in detention at a facility in Texas. Her story detailed the condition of hundreds of children who were tightly confined, filthy and without the basic necessities for proper care.
While much attention is centered on the treatment of children at the border, Debra Houry, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, told lawmakers that a study conducted last year revealed suicide rates are going up overall in almost every state and suicides are accelerating among youth in more than half of the states.
The cause, Houry explained, is the spread of undiagnosed adverse childhood experiences. Those experiences can be defined by exposure to things like physical, sexual, verbal or substance abuse, as well as poverty, malnutrition and more.
A Centers for Disease Control investigation in Stark County, Ohio, last year found that 30% of youth who had three or more instances of adverse childhood experiences disclosed suicidal ideations. The rate was 80% among young people using opioids.
“Suicide is not just about mental illness. More than half of those who die by suicide did not have a diagnosed mental illness. It’s brought on by childhood trauma or losing a job, or losing a relationship or economic stress,” Houry said.
Dr. Christina Bethell, director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, told lawmakers while legislation like the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act can address issues victims face, the government’s approach doesn’t factor in the generational, cultural or economic pressures that spur abuse and later cement trauma in impressionable minds.
“The federal government must be relentless. All of the National Institute of Health programs that study disease know childhood trauma is a factor but we need to start integrating adverse childhood experiences into all programs” Bethell said.
The impact of natural disasters and climate change must also be factored into how the government addresses childhood trauma, said Denese Shervington, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine who studied the effect Hurricane Katrina had on children.
“Children need two things: caretakers to make them feel safe and to know their environment is safe. When Katrina happened, all of that was shattered. Children don’t have the language to talk about how they’re feeling and adults are often dependent on that while they themselves are trying to cope,” Shervington said.
Some mothers told Shervington it was hard for them to breastfeed and bond because they were so worn and traumatized by their experience during the hurricane. Their trauma extended to their children and lasted for years, the professor said.
Another study of children born shortly after Katrina hit revealed many were hyperactive or “unregulated” in school later, according to Shervington. Their trauma was only diagnosed after a principal made the connection to their experience during Katrina and their performance years later.
Teachers and principals across the U.S. could help more if federal programs through the Department of Education, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association or Health and Human Services Department were better coordinated.
“It would be helpful to have one message to rely on…one kind of science about how we’re going to heal them,” Shervington said.
Heather Martin was a senior at Columbine High School when two teenagers went on a shooting spree in 1999, killing 13 and wounding dozens. Barricaded into a room with 59 students as the violence unfolded, a single siren blared the entire time. The detail was forgotten until she was in college a year later and a fire alarm went off. Martin burst into tears immediately and confusedly.
Her experience led her to co-found The Rebels Project, a network connecting mass shooting and tragedy survivors for support. Now a teacher, she’s talked to and observed children who share eerily similar experiences.
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who represents a district just next to Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where a mass shooting unfolded last year, asked Martin for advice on how teachers can better assist youth with trauma.
“Remember: just because a student is acting out in class or challenging you, there’s a good chance it’s not something you’re doing. It’s something they’ve been through. You have to understand and reflect on that. Ask a kid a simple question before you write them up for misbehavior: How are you? How are you feeling today?” Martin said.