Health & Medicine

Institutional racism can cause lifelong trauma. How experts hope to help kids in need

How communities can come together to deal with trauma and avoid chronic diseases

Health Net organized a forum at the Greater Sacramento Urban League, Friday, July 20, where school and health officials and interested community members talked about the connection between trauma and chronic illnesses.
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Health Net organized a forum at the Greater Sacramento Urban League, Friday, July 20, where school and health officials and interested community members talked about the connection between trauma and chronic illnesses.

With plans to turn conversation into meaningful action, over 100 officials from the Sacramento region convened last week in Del Paso Heights to begin talks about the impact of trauma in the community.

Local experts discussed the effective, meaningful work that can be done to process trauma of various forms.

The event, which was organized by the national health care insurance provider Health Net, took place Friday at the Greater Sacramento Urban League. It featured a panel of local experts who provided their insights on different forms of trauma in and around the Sacramento region.

The forum aimed to “help transform the lives of children impacted by trauma,” including foster youths, homeless youths and youths living in unsafe, unstable or violent environments.

The conversation during the event focused largely on trauma for persons of color, especially youths.

“For Sacramento, when you think about Meadowview and Valley Hi and Del Paso Heights, a lot of the community trauma deals with community violence and also police violence,” said Kellie Griffin, the director of Strategic Giving & Community Engagement at Health Net.

Event attendant Gina Warren, a clinical pharmacist, said change will not occur until the perceptions of those in the medical field and in the educational system are changed to recognize the experiences of children who’ve grown up in poverty.

Both Warren and Griffin mentioned the high suspension rates of black and brown students in the Sacramento region. Researchers from San Diego State University and UCLA recently found Sacramento schools suspend black males at the highest rates in the state.

“We’re seeing our 3-year-olds, our 4-year-olds getting suspended from Good Neighbors (Child Development Center),” Warren said. “Kids from Castori get suspended and sent to the older continuation high school. How do we deal with the teachers who still are not trauma-informed nor are ready to be trauma-informed when they’re looking at our black children?”

In response to Warren’s comments, Dr. Flojaune Cofer, the director of state policy and research for public health advocates and an epidemiologist on the panel, explained the need to disrupt institutional racism and implicit bias within the educational system.

Institutional racism — systems which perpetuate inequality — and implicit bias — which determines who is deserving and who isn’t — intersect in the educational system, Cofer said.

“We’re not doing good trauma work if we only focus on the individual,” she said. “You can do all the great work you can in a school, but you send those kids home at the end of the day. That’s why it’s really important for us to understand childhood trauma from the lens of safety, but also to understand that our perception of safety is not just what happens at home, it’s what happens everywhere we go.”

Breaking down systems which perpetuate prejudice and inequality can happen, Cofer said, when work is done differently — when it involves those directly affected in a larger dialogue.

Event organizers hope the forum will serve as a first step and lead to tangible results within Sacramento communities.

In attendance was District 1 Supervisor Phil Serna, who discussed a planned, countywide initiative that will incorporate structured, trauma-informed services through different levels of care in the community.

Serna said the unnamed initiative will inform people, like the county chief of probation and officials overseeing child welfare and public health services, about trauma-informed care. By the end of this year, there will be a more concrete plan for the initiative, Serna said.

Uma K. Zykofsky, the director of Sacramento County Behavioral Health Services and a licensed clinical social worker, said there needs to be many different ways to reach people and multiple entry points for services and care.

“It’s not just about therapy,” Cofer said. “That’s important, but there’s a lot we can do that doesn’t involve getting people into services. There are some (things) that we all can do that can happen in schools and community centers and clinical spaces where we’re listening to people, telling them they’re important and caring about how they’re doing. That goes a long way.”

Cofer used a community cookout that took place June 24 as an example of how communities can process traumatic events together.

The Sacramento Black Community Cookout, organized by over 20 Sacramento organizations, was a response to a situation which occurred in Oakland on April 29 when a white woman called the police to report a group of black people barbecuing.

In recent weeks and months, a number of situations involving a white person calling the cops on a person of color for noncriminal activities have taken place around the nation.

Sacramento community organizers partnered to reclaim a space and create a safe environment to process an emotional trauma together. More than 500 people ate, danced, talked and double-Dutched at the cookout in McClatchy Park.

“When we respond to a trauma in a community-based way that everybody can access … that is a form of healing,” Cofer said. “There needs to be a response to help people heal. People were able to come together, and I heard so many people say, ‘That was really nice.’”

Experts in attendance referenced the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. Findings show early experiences impact lifelong health.

Someone who has had childhood trauma is three times more likely to have a stroke in their life, said Dr. Jonathon Porteus, CEO of WellSpace Health and a licensed clinical psychologist and addictionologist.

“I always think of the family table in a trauma-involved family,” Porteus said. “Who can metabolize and digest their food when they’re sitting at a table with their abuser? When they’re sitting at a table where they’re going to get yelled at under conditions of stress?”

High-stress environments are also directly linked to the development of irritable bowel syndrome later in life.

Although health officials recognize the impacts of early trauma, oftentimes these experiences go unrecognized.

“We’re still expecting them to act in the same way as someone who doesn’t experience trauma,” Griffin said.

A body will adapt to a traumatic environment, sometimes in a maladaptive way, Cofer further explained.

“They are responding in this way because their brains are trying to adapt to a terrible situation,” she said. “Something happening to a 4-year-old is very different than something happening to a 40-year-old. The 40-year-old has 40 years of experience to understand death or to understand something that’s happening in the community, but a 4-year-old — this is their entire world.”