Wednesday 27 May 2020

Kindness - the new superpower

Throughout the coronavirus lockdown, there will be children stuck at home who have suffered emotional or physical abuse; kids who've witnessed the painful breakdown of their parents' relationship, or watched a mother/father spiral downwards into depression. 

The front cover of a book about ACEs
The book: how we can help people 
who have suffered childhood trauma
These experiences are not uncommon and sadly it has become clear that they can have a long-term impact, affecting not only children's mental health into adulthood, but also their physical health. For example, people who have suffered trauma in their early lives are more vulnerable to strokes and heart disease.

Over the past year, I have been writing a book for Public Health Wales about a group of pioneering individuals who have developed new ways of helping children and young adults blighted by their adverse childhood experiences (known as ACEs). 

Crucially, with the right support, these young people are not necessarily destined to lead a miserable existence, but do have the potential to enjoy happier and healthier lives. Despite the trauma they may have endured, their lives are not fixed on a destructive track, or headed into a siding to nowhere. 

Meet the ACE interrupters

From Cardiff to Edinburgh, I have travelled across the country interviewing teachers, a social worker, former rugby player, prison officer, police officer, psychologist, lawyer and theatre director, among others. What these people - so-called ACE interrupters - have in common is the trauma-informed approach they take towards their work. This means they are kind, curious and non-judgmental. They strive to see the child, or the person, behind the behaviour being exhibited in the classroom or elsewhere (often challenging or socially unacceptable behaviour). 

Criminal defence lawyer, Iain Smith, told me how his attitude changed towards his clients - young men and women charged with possession of drugs, petty theft, assault etc - when he learnt about ACEs. "I felt for 25 years I had failed the people I thought I was trying to help," he says candidly. "I never felt they were bad people but I thought there was an element of choice... whereas now I think of a lot of [their behaviour] is not controlled."

I've also had the privilege of meeting two heroic single mothers and a former prisoner, all of whom have managed to overcome the trauma that marred their early lives. I found their resilience, humour and courage in the face of so many obstacles both moving and inspirational. 

One of these interviewees, Kevin Neary, spent years on crack cocaine and endured repeated spells in prison, latterly for assault. His childhood - as one of nine kids - in Glasgow and West Lothian was tough and sometimes harrowing. As a teenager, he turned to alcohol to dull the pain. It took decades before a prison officer took a personal interest in Kevin, setting him off on a more positive trajectory aged 40. 

Now, Kevin goes into schools and shares his story with pupils, demonstrating how anyone can turn their life around with the right support and resilience factors. "I've been speaking about ACEs for years and didna know it," he told me. "It's just a shit life - do you know what I mean?" Kevin, a kind and gentle man, has since taken part in a BBC Panorama programme, speaking about his experiences.

The kindness of strangers

About half of the adults in the UK have suffered at least one ACE, according to research led by Professor Mark Bellisdirector of policy and international health at Public Health Wales (and the person who commissioned me to write the book). More than 10% have experienced in excess of four ACEs, which puts them in a high-risk category in terms of the potential harm to their health and wellbeing. Across Europe and North America, the cost to society of harms resulting from ACEs is a shocking $1.3 trillion a year. That's the equivalent of $1,200 per year for every person living in these two regions.

To read our free book, Inspiration from ACE Interrupters in Great Britain, click here

Over the past year, I have learnt so much about the science behind ACEs and the approaches we can take to support people affected by trauma. And by we, I mean all of us. Hokey as it sounds, the next time you pass a homeless person in the street or encounter someone suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction, take a moment to consider what they might have been through to bring them to this point. Treating others with dignity, empathy and compassion costs us very little - and people with ACEs I've spoken to cherish the day someone showed them a little kindness.

As Professor Bellis says: "Sadly for some children, the restrictions put in place to control coronavirus will have left them at greater risk of abuse, neglect and persistent exposure to domestic violence and alcohol misuse in their homes. This book shows that so much can be done to support those who suffer childhood adversity and these stories of ACE interrupters are shining examples of how even a few individuals can make a difference to the lives of so many."


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing. The stories are inspirational. I am moved by the resilience. The need for compassion and empathy now is greater than ever. Here's hoping that we can all reflect on the things that others are experiencing. And teach our kids about how to be empathetic rather than judgmental.

Emma Clark Lam said...

Thanks for commenting - and, yes, an important point regarding our children. We should encourage them to have empathy for others from an early age.

Post a Comment