There is hope for the future.

That may seem like a broad statement, but it is true. If the future is our children and our children have potential, the future is in good hands.

Let’s start with the bad news first. Toxic stress physically damages a child’s developing brain, according to neuroscientists and pediatricians. The good news - science has proven that through neuroplasticity, the brain has the capacity for resilience.

One way to find out the risks for a child or community is through the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) test, which is a list of 10 questions about childhood exposure to violence, abuse and stress. The score shows potential risks for things like depression, disease, substance abuse and job potential, according to the CDC’s recently released Vitalsigns.

“It is critical to have an understanding of ACEs because the long-term effects of toxic stress can be significant,” Project AWARE Community Manager Amy Whitewater, M. Ed. said. “Toxic stress alters brain development, and children with high ACEs scores are more likely to have serious health issues and to turn to harmful substances as coping mechanisms. Negative outcomes associated with ACEs can impact the entire community.”

According to Whitewater, the Woodward Public School (WPS) faculty members have always worked to help children overcome unfortunate circumstances. Last year they received a multi-million dollar Project AWARE grant to assist in their endeavors.

“Through the grant, we have trained more than 300 school employees in Youth Mental Health First Aid and provided each of them with a classroom mental health support tub,” Whitewater said. “This training helps our staff members to better recognize the signs of trauma and stress and provides them with easy-to-implement strategies to help students in need.”

The AWARE therapist provides counseling services for students across the district. WPS has streamlined the referral process to local mental health providers, according to Whitewater.

“At the middle school and high school we have implemented a 16-week small-group curriculum called SPARCS (Structured Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress) to help students learn to overcome toxic stress and to nurture resilience,” Whitewater said. “Our AWARE team is is also working diligently to provide education and to increase awareness throughout the community.”

To that end, the team has hosted several parent and community events over the past year to help adults better understand what ACEs are and how they impact children and the community, according to Whitewater.

“There is a tremendous stigma associated with mental illness in our community. It is crucial that we eliminate this negativity,” Whitewater said. “We would never hesitate to seek medical attention for a child with a broken bone or appendicitis, and the same urgency should apply to a child suffering from anxiety or depression.

"A medical need is a medical need. Whether it is related to a bone or to the brain should not make any difference - help is available, and there is no shame in seeking assistance.”

According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, the ACEs quiz does not give a full picture of the adversity a child has faced because it does not ask about other situations such as community violence, poverty, discrimination, isolation, natural disasters or lack of services.

Other factors that could tip the scale of potential outcomes are supportive relationships, community services and skill-building opportunities. According to Harvard, such factors can be protective in decreasing risk. Children’s individual differences also play a role in outcomes.

In other words, ACEs experience indicates possible risk, not actual potential.

According to Whitewater, the community needs to adopt a more proactive, positive attitude regarding mental health.

“Our elementary counselors work very hard to match students with adult mentors who visit the school once a week during lunch to provide a little extra support for our students,” Whitewater said. “They are always looking for volunteers who are willing to give a little time for students in need. “

If you are interested in volunteering as a mentor at WPS, call Whitewater at 580-256-6063 ext. 3547 for more information.

For more information about the CDC Vitalsigns on ACEs go to www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aces.

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