Fear’s Greatest Vaccination: Courage
By Aparna Srikanth, Solon High School, Solon, Ohio, USA
Vulnerability, beyond all other devices of human expression, is a great equalizer for the conditions of our society. When we expose our struggles and trauma to those in power, it is not burdening weakness that they feel, but rather it is the accountability to change. While this fact remains, the courage of vulnerability is grappling with a losing battle to stigma and discrimination within cultures that were built to unite us. Despite this past year forcing physical vulnerability in more ways than one, we are yet to address certain symptoms of this pandemic that are slowly being silenced with time. The mental health crisis that we’ve seen rising in younger generations has now surfaced. With that, the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have skyrocketed. It’s easier to question the courage that it takes to be vulnerable than to actually educate ourselves and recognize how much adversity we truly face. It’s time to turn the fear of vulnerability into courage and stand strong in our conviction for change.
Last month, I had the privilege of sitting down with Dana Brown, the Southern California Regional Community Facilitator for the ACEs Connection Network, to talk about the significance of the ACE study and its expansion. Brown has worked as a social entrepreneur for 23 years, seeking change with ACEs science - epidemiology, neurobiology, biology, epigenetics, resilience building, etc. She’s engaged in the deep work of raising awareness, through the lens of cultural humility, for systemic racism, privilege, and the impact of systems-induced trauma. By definition, an ACE “describes a [potentially] traumatic experience in a person's life occurring before the age of 18” (Felitti, Anda, Nordenberg, Williamson, Spitz, Edwards, Koss, Marks, 1998). With ACEs being the largest public health study in the world, the real enigma is why they are so underrepresented in the communities where they matter most. Now, the original ACE study of approximately 17,000 individuals was first released in May of 1998, making it relatively young. But considering how rapidly the issue of youth adversity has spread in these 22 years, and how much it has worsened in this past one year, it’s safe to say that the ACE study is well beyond its years.
Under normal circumstances, trauma can cause both mental and emotional isolation. But one year ago, when physical isolation was abruptly forced onto us, mental illness and adversity became an epidemic of its own. As Brown describes it, “[the rapidly rising mental illness and suicide rates], compounded with civil unrest, and exacerbated by political rhetoric, are a direct symptom of the pandemic.” She cites that reports of child abuse have gone down by roughly a third since the pandemic began but not for the reasons we think (Horowitz & Graf, 2019). Lockdown provided no opportunities for children and teenagers to actively seek help, keeping them trapped in whatever terrifying reality that we’ll conveniently never know of. We can more clearly define the impact of the pandemic in the soaring rates of human trafficking, domestic violence, suicide, and poverty (Griffith, 2020). These issues don’t need a devil’s advocate. While victims of abuse and trauma are running a mile a minute on fear, the world has come to a dangerous halt. It’s only a matter of time before they fall, so it’s now our job to keep pace with them and make sure that they get back up.
But we can never forget about the plethora of resources and techniques to help align this perceived danger with personal safety, this trauma with healing, this fear with courage. Our bodies are breakable but just as easily mendable. Techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and silence are solutions that aptly inspire hope. But surely we are not naive enough to believe that it is solely the lack of mental care that has been the catalyst for this crisis. Widely-trusted systems that structurally oppress vulnerability and re-traumatize victims of adversity will continuously fail well-intentioned people over and over again if we do not address it. To frontline systems-change workers like Brown, it is “critically imperative that we integrate this understanding of ACEs within programs, practices, policies, and procedures." The bottom line is, we need a culture shift: one that condemns stigma and encourages vulnerability. That fear of vulnerability will remain even in the most hopeful corners of society. But if we can normalize and rebuild cultures that were once meant to unite us, we can give millions of people the courage to begin healing. For, what is courage if not fear that has said its prayers?
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8
Griffith, A. K. (2020). Parental Burnout and Child Maltreatment During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Family Violence, 6–14. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-020-00172-2
Horowitz J. M., & Graf N. (2019, February 20). Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers/