By Jessica Cohen
For the Gazette
PORT JERVIS - A screening of “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope” recently drew educators, social service workers and police to the Port Jervis High School auditorium.
The screening was organized by Julika von Stackelberg, parenting and family life educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Middletown, and Nick Pantaleone, Port Jervis School District assistant superintendent for instruction. They aimed to influence how people remedy stress in themselves and others to improve community well-being.
“Walla Walla did it with great results,” von Stackelberg said of a county in Washington where “toxic stress” was addressed innovatively in education, medical care and social services. Crime and suicide decreased, while graduation rates improved, among other measures.
The film follows doctors who took new findings about the nature and consequences of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and found practical ways to apply them. They were driven by evidence that clusters of ACEs in childhood can undermine health for life, shorten life expectancy by as much as 20 years, and deeply affect moment-to-moment experience—and that a high percentage of Americans grew up with such stress clusters. Adverse childhood experiences include household stress from divorce, addiction, mental illness, domestic violence or incarceration; physical, emotional or sexual abuse; and emotional or physical neglect.
“Toxic stress with no support creates chronic activation,” said Jack Shonkoff, professor of child health and development at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, in the film.
With ongoing activation of fight or flight mechanisms in the body, the “low brain” and extremities get too much blood flow and the “high brain,” responsible for learning, gets too little, shortchanging development and generating various ills. Neuro-endocrine problems and inflammation result, said Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician who became California’s first surgeon general last year.
“When trauma over-activates stress responses, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication aggravates it,” she said, suggesting that ADHD is often wrongly treated, one among many consequences of adverse childhood experiences. Also mentioned, for example, was a finding that 55 percent of obesity patients were sexually abused.
Harris suggested universal screening for ACEs, and then providing coping tools, such as mindfulness, education about stress, support for exercise and good nutrition, and other community assistance.
“School nurses and school resource officers need to be made aware,” said Pantaleone, speaking after the film.
Von Stackelberg urged a shift in approach to dysfunction from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you? What’s right with you? What’s strong for you?’ We need to create supportive communities and develop trainings for community workers.”
As a warming station manager, Heather Bebe agreed. “We first learned to ask not, ‘What’s wrong?’ but ‘What happened?”
“Clinics provide too much medication and not enough mindfulness and cognitive interventions,” said Fran Griffin, a retired county social worker.
Police Chief Bill Worden said he saw opportunities for partnerships between police and social service agencies at the screening.
Pantaleone and von Stackelberg will speak at the Making Healthy Decisions Conference, focusing on community resilience strategies, on March 18 in Newburgh. For information and registration: cceorangecounty.org/events/2020/03/18/23rd-annual-making-healthful-decisions-conference.