Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can refer to a range of experiences from verbal, sexual, or physical abuse; to neglect; substance misuse, or family mental illness. It can also include bullying, poverty, racism, traumatic losses, food shortages, harsh experiences in care, poor academic performance, and living in unsafe environments.
By the age of eight, 7 in 10 children report at least one such experience. These can have significant impacts on children’s lives, even reducing life expectancy by up to 20 years and causing social, emotional, and cognitive impairment, risky behaviours, disability, social exclusion, poor health. Three in four ACE-exposed adolescents develop mental health problems by the age of 18, including self-harm, suicide attempts, and post-traumatic stress disorders.
One of the challenges in trying to prevent ACEs, as well as improving the health of young people who have suffered, is concern over possible re-traumatisation as well as stigma and taboo associated with discussing some ACEs openly. Specific identity groups may be at higher risk due to intersectional influences. Influences are patterned by age, gender, LGBTQ, ethnicity, and neurodiversity. The latter in particular makes people vulnerable to ACEs and to adverse effects.
Yet young people are resilient and can flourish despite experiencing adversity. And we have been awarded a new UKRI cross-research council award for an Oxford/Falmouth-led project aimed at understanding ACEs and evolving ways of preventing them. Young people’s lived experiences are at the heart of the research and learning. Working alongside, ATTUNE, a collaboration of youth organisations, charities, universities, health and social agencies, we are going to be studying the mental health impacts of ACEs, using creative arts and digital methods.
Participation in creative process can be empowering and therapeutic and enables young people to reflect and talk about their concerns more gradually and gently. For some specific experiences and some young people, other approaches may be better suited.
The main challenge faced by people living with adverse experiences and trauma is the understandable tendency to avoid reminders of that they have been through. They also have to overcome disrupted memory processing of traumatic events, making a first step in the journey to recovery even more difficult.
The approaches we evolve will offer young people choice and personalised options and be accessible to those in rural and coastal as well as urban areas. Above all, it is really important not to impose a particular set of solutions. We need to learn about social, behavioural and psychological mechanisms – and which creative processes help young people. We need to find out which interventions can work, and which public health approaches are supportive and create a better, safer environment. The incredibly talented consortium of young people, partners and investigators involved in this project offers hope and an optimistic and creative response to debilitating experiences.