Chris Haley, the Berkshire-area director of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, speaks at the NBCC meeting on Nov. 16.

Coalition Introduces Idea of 'Trauma-Informed' Community

By Rebecca Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
03:09PM / Monday, November 26, 2018

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — There's usually a lot of talking at Northern Berkshire Community Coalition monthly forums.

At the most recent forum, however, there was more listening.

The group of about 60 guests -- meeting for the first time in The Green's new space at 85 Main St. -- gathered on Friday, Nov. 16, to watch "Resilience," James Redford's film that chronicles the birth of a new movement among pediatricians, therapists and educators who are using cutting-edge brain science to develop trauma-informed communities.

The film lays out the science behind a biological syndrome caused by abuse and neglect during childhood that can trigger stress hormones that in turn wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time and early death as they grow up. While the broader impacts of poverty worsen the risk, no segment of society is immune. 

The film chronicles a group of trailblazers in pediatrics, education and social welfare who are using cutting-edge science and field-tested therapies to protect children from the effects of this kind of toxic stress using something called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The ACE asks people to respond to questions about childhood, like whether they witnessed substance abuse, whether their parents were divorced or whether a family member was imprisoned. 

Those completing the questionnaire count the number of "yes" answers; according to the film, three mean you are twice as likely to develop heart disease as those who score zero. If you score four, you are three times as likely to have depression, and a score of six reduces your life expectancy by 20 years.

The film contains many eye-opening, disturbing and touching scenes, and the guests at the coalition forum had a short, quiet discussion after watching it about how its lessons about childhood trauma can help a community like Northern Berkshire County develop a healthier way to move forward.

Chris Haley, the Berkshire-area director of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, attended the forum to discuss how "trauma-informed communities" are being formed throughout the country.

"Everyone's life is affected by what has happened to them," she said. So the question to ask of each other, she said, is not "what's wrong with you?" but instead "what's happened to you?"

Haley said her focus has been on early childhood centers and schools, trying to create a new generation of trauma-informed residents.

"Resilience is something we can build over time," she said.

Coalition Director Amber Beesaw said there are steps already being taken in North County, naming the Family Place's Parenting Journey Workshop, which she said "takes a parent back" to their own childhood in the process.

"We do lots of things that fall in line with all this," she said. "And it's eye-opening when you do it for yourself."

Anyone interested in completing the ACE for themselves can find it online here.

Using the ACE to work toward a healthier North Berkshire is something Haley said she is really passionate about.

"I think it's something really achievable for us," she said. 

As education and health care professionals are working toward this, though, the question was raised: What can all of us do in the meantime to help? It's really simple, Haley said.

"Be nice. Don't be judgmental," she said, adding that sometimes all it takes to help one person is for another person to show they care. "You could be that person."


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