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mental health mondays :: it gets worse

you're not just gonna walk that off
wealthy, western societies are generally very good at finding the correlation between good childhood health and adult health. we know that consuming proper levels of calcium and vitamin d, for instance, is crucial to the development of strong bones and that, if bones aren't properly nourished when we're children, chances are those bones are going to be weak, brittle and possibly malformed later on, even if, as an adult, the person was getting proper nutrition. damage done in childhood results in problems that are infinitely more complicated in adulthood.

likewise, we know very well that psychological damage inflicted on children will cause long-term psychological damage. children who are abused or abandoned employ survival mechanisms that cause their brains to incur the same sorts of damage as unhealthy bones and become adults with mental or mood disorders as a result. modern psychiatry was largely developed from freud's idea that our conscious lives are largely dictated by the habits of our unconscious mind. a century later, we've replaced the idea of conscious and unconscious and shifted our focus to the chemical makeup of our brains, but the theory still holds: our psychological reactions to everyday events are based on the elements available to our brains "behind the scenes". and early childhood experiences have a profound effect on what elements are and aren't available to our brains.

finally, we also hear, through campaigns like canada's "depression hurts", how mental disorders have an effect on physical health; depression doesn't just cause issues with mood. depression and anxiety cause inflammatory substances to proliferate throughout the body, causing all sorts of problems, from general aches to gastrointestinal disorders. it's one of the reasons why antidepressants like cymbalta and effexor can be effective against inflammatory conditions like fibromyalgia.

but what's odd is that, until recently, i hadn't heard a lot about how those things fit together. it seemed like no one was asking the obvious question: if children experience psychological damage during their formative years, does the reaction cause health problems [aside from psychological ones] that persist throughout their adult lives, like those from poorly developed bones?

recently, i've seen an article circulating a lot on social media that appears to answer that question and the answer is very, very gloomy.

this news seems so obvious that you'd think it didn't need to be studied: if the toxic mix of chemicals unleashed by mental and mood disorders in adults wreaks havoc on their entire body, then obviously it would be damaging to a child's body as well. and if physical damage from childhood diseases can wreak long-term havoc on otherwise healthy adults, well, psychological stressors are just another way to incur that physical damage.

but while it might have been obvious, even i'm a little staggered by the numbers that turned up in the work the article cites. experiencing an adverse childhood event [ace] increases your likelihood of a host of different conditions and the increase can be alarming. those with ace scores of 4 or higher [about 1 person in 8]:


  • had 20% higher incidence of autoimmune disorders like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis than those with lower scores
  • were twice as likely to develop cancer
  • were up to 460% more likely to develop depression [as much as we might have assumed that, the number is still shockingly high]
  • showed a significantly higher chance of heart disease; in fact, an ace score of 7 or higher made someone 360% more likely to have a heart attack, even if they didn't smoke, had normal cholesterol, and weren't overweight. in other words, if you're constantly criticizing, shaming, mocking and humiliating a kind, you might as well just hand them a pack of smokes and tell them to light up.  
  • have a reduced life expectancy of about 20 years compared to those who had mostly healthy childhoods


the science behind all this is still new, but, like the idea itself, makes a lot of sense: our dna is protected by little "caps" and as we get older, those caps wear down, allowing diseases to infiltrate and cause damage. people who experience child abuse get those caps worn down early and, what's worse, everywhere. they are less able to defend against just about any kind of disease and that damage can't ever be reversed. that last part is the truly horrifying bit: even if a person is able to go through therapy and learn healthier ways to deal with their trauma, even if they can improve their psychological state, they're still walking on poorly developed bones. except that the bones are their dna.

the good news, insofar as there is any, is that now we're starting to know this. and while i don't think that knowing is anything close to half the battle, it is the crucial first step to being able to do something about it and being able to adjust our healthcare systems to deal with it. so, yes, the news is pretty grim, but it at least presents the opportunity for improvement. which is as happy as i can make it sound at the moment. sorry.

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