Mental Health

Childhood trauma experts share insights with Sonoma County educators and counselors

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris gives a keynote speech about childhood trauma and how it effects school children, Thursday, June 8, 2023, during the Trauma-Informed Practices, Resilience and Healing seminar, sponsored by the Sonoma County Office of Education at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2023
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Former California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris shared her insights on childhood trauma, resilience and healing Thursday at a lecture-style event in Rohnert Park hosted by the Sonoma County Office of Education.

The talk, which also featured Dr. Bruce Perry, a renowned neuroscientist and trauma expert, via video conference, focused on the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and the neurosciences of prolonged exposure to toxic stress.

He also presented ways to mitigate and even reverse the effects of such trauma, through early, collective intervention and a healing dose of secure, stable relationships.

The message resonated with those in attendance, primarily educators, youth counselors and community leaders, many of whom were familiar with research on adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs. Such experiences include, but are not limited to, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; domestic violence at home; living with an adult who has an addiction problem or is mentally ill.

Our entire district really tries to be as knowledgeable about trauma as possible, said Samantha Cole, a school counselor at Hillcrest Middle School in Sebastopol.

Burke Harris, the first state-appointed general surgeon, served between 2019 and 2022, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than a decade earlier, Burke Harris, a pediatrician, began exploring the effects of lingering childhood trauma after establishing a youth clinic in Bayview-Hunters Point, one of San Francisco’s most underprivileged communities.

Ultimately, she developed a screening process that gave her and the clinic staff insights into the specific traumas that underlie the mental and physical health problems the children were experiencing.

I had a little boy who had asthma attacks every time his father came home from incarceration, Burke Harris said.

Burke Harris said one of the key findings of his work at the Bayview Hunters Point Clinic was the vast difference in behavior problems for children who have experienced trauma and those who have not.

He said that only 3% of patients who did not have adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, had learning or behavioral problems. Meanwhile, 51.2% of children with multiple ACEs had learning or behavioral problems.

But Burke Harris stressed that ACEs are not destiny.

She said the key to reducing the effects of traumatic stress is ensuring a child is in a secure, stable and nurturing relationship. A daily hug just won’t be enough, she added.

Burke Harris, who lives in Sonoma County, said other interventions include high-quality sleep, providing balanced nutrition, mindfulness practices, high-quality mental health care, and increased access to nature.

Perry, who leads the Neurosequential Network and is an adjunct professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, echoed many of the points made by Burke Harris.

Perry said the current model of mental health care in the United States, focused on crisis pathology, is unable to respond to today’s mental health crises, especially those involving large-scale natural disasters and tragic events. like the mass shootings.

Answering with an hour of therapy a week is never going to work, she said.

Instead, she said, hundreds of small doses of support through positive interactions throughout the day can heal and reverse the impact of trauma. These opportunities are mostly in school, she said.

But the panelists recognized that no single person—whether school counselor, teacher, doctor, or social worker—can bear the entire burden of creating a safe, stable, and nurturing environment for children exposed to continual traumatic experiences.

You can contact staff writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.

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