“Toxic stress” has come up before in previous posts. It can occur when children are exposed to severe, frequent or prolonged traumatic experiences. Researchers refer to these events as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
When kids lack caring, protective relationships with caregivers, the stress response associated with adverse experiences can disrupt normal brain development. And the cumulative effect of toxic stress can take a toll on a person’s physical and mental health, not just in childhood but throughout life.
Toxic stress during childhood is linked it to unhealthy lifestyles later in life, such as using alcohol to cope with stress, tobacco use, and illicit drug use. A Pediatrics article also states that the “biological manifestations of toxic stress” can cause impairment of the immune system and increase risk factors for heart disease, asthma, and other health problems.
A new Child Trends report shows Oklahoma children to be especially at risk for exposure to multiple ACEs and focuses attention on a serious problem. They found 17% of children in Oklahoma have experienced 3 or more ACEs from birth through 17 years of age, a tie for the highest rate of multiple ACEs in the country. Oklahoma should be worried about this finding because children exposed to four or more ACEs are at “particularly higher risk of negative physical and mental health outcomes.”
Child Trends studied the prevalence of exposure to 8 Adverse Childhood Experiences. The 8 categories are listed below, along with relevant data related to the issue in Oklahoma.
- Divorce or separation of a parent or guardian
Child Trends states divorce and economic hardship are tied as the most common ACE in Oklahoma. Oklahoma has one of the highest divorce rates in the country. Although Oklahoma received over $70 million federal dollars to fund programs designed to reduce the divorce rate, the rate of divorce keeps rising and the percent of homes with married couples is declining.
- Incarceration of a parent or guardian
As of 2010, Oklahoma had the third highest incarceration rate in the country, 62% higher than the national average, according to the National Institute of Corrections. The state also leads the country in the rate of female incarceration.
- Exposure to parent or guardian who is mentally ill, suicidal or seriously depressed for more than 2 weeks
Child Trends states exposure to a parent with mental illness as the fourth most common ACE in Oklahoma. Oklahoma has the 12th highest suicide rate in the country, and between 2000 and 2010 the suicide rate in Oklahoma rose 13%. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states approximately 134,000 Oklahomans between 2008 and 2012 had a serious mental illness in the prior year. In spite of the state’s high rate of mental health issues and suicide, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health faced $20 million in funding cuts this year.
- Exposure to parent or caregiver who abuses alcohol or drugs
This was the second most common ACE listed for Oklahoma kids in the Child Trends brief. The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services lists substance abuse as the number one health problem in Oklahoma, estimating 140,000 adults in the state are in need of substance abuse treatment.
- Witnessing a parent or another adult behaving violently toward another person
According to Oklahoma’s DHS Domestic Violence Taskforce, in 2012, 24.16% of the state’s substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect involved a child being exposed to domestic violence. And in 33% of all domestic violence homicides in Oklahoma, a child witnessed the homicide.
- Death of a parent or guardian
Child Trends shows Oklahoma had the 4th highest prevalence in the country for exposure to this ACE. Among the leading causes of death in the U.S. (listed in the chart below), Oklahoma has higher rates than the national average in all five categories, according to a 2008 study, Oklahoma: Burden of Chronic Diseases.
A 2007 CDC study shows 26% of adults and 23% of high school students use tobacco and 65% of Oklahomans are overweight or obese, contributing to the state’s poor health scores. According to Oklahoma Watch, the Sooner State ranked 5th lowest in the nation in life expectancy, and when looking at gender, we rank 50th for women’s life expectancy and 47th for men’s.
Being a victim of violence or witnessing neighborhood violence
Child Trends lists violence as the third most common ACE in Oklahoma. The 2014 KIDS COUNT report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates 114,000, or 12%, of Oklahoma children live in high-poverty areas in Oklahoma. These areas are more likely to have high rates of crime and violence.
- Suffering economic hardship, including difficulties covering the cost of food or housing
According KIDS COUNT, 24% of Oklahoma children live in poverty and 29% live in households with a high housing cost burden. The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma estimates 675,000 Oklahomans are at risk of hunger every day, and that includes one out of four children.
- If you want to learn more about how Adverse Childhood Experiences impact brain function, check out the Center on the Developing Child video, Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development, which is linked below.