Over the past decade, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the founder of the Center for Youth Wellness, in Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco, has emerged as one of the country’s strongest voices calling for a national public health campaign to raise awareness and a sense of urgency about the devastating and potentially lifelong health effects of childhood trauma.
Since the original research on adverse childhood experiences, known as the ACE Study, was published in 1998, a growing body of evidence has indicated that severe or prolonged levels of childhood adversity (often measured in terms of an “ACE score” ranging from 0 to 10) are far more common and harmful than has been appreciated. Dr. Burke Harris, a pediatrician, has led in developing methods to screen and treat children and families suffering health problems attributable to what is known as toxic stress.
Last week, Dr. Burke Harris’s book, “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity,” was published. It offers a powerful — even indispensable — frame to both understand and respond more effectively to our most serious social ills. Recently, I spoke with her about it:
David Bornstein: What’s the most important takeaway from “The Deepest Well”?
Nadine Burke Harris: Childhood adversity literally gets under our skin and has the potential to change our health. The corollary is that it’s something we can do something about.
D.B.: What’s the difference between normal and “toxic” stress?
N.B.H.: We’re not talking about failing a test or losing at a sports match. We’re talking about threats that are severe or prolonged — things like abuse or neglect, or growing up with a parent who is mentally ill or substance-dependent. Our biological stress response is designed to save our lives from something threatening, and that’s healthy. The problem is that when the stress response is activated repeatedly it can become overactive and affect our brain development, our immune systems and even how our DNA is read and transcribed. High doses of stress hormones can inhibit the brain’s executive functioning and make it harder for kids or adults to exercise impulse control.