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The hidden health crisis of toxic stress

Akeelah Kell finds comfort in her mother's arms during a 2015 vigil for Jamyla Bolden, 9, who was shot and killed in St. Louis . Researchers say trauma can cause "toxic stress" that harms children's emotional and physical health.
Akeelah Kell finds comfort in her mother's arms during a 2015 vigil for Jamyla Bolden, 9, who was shot and killed in St. Louis . Researchers say trauma can cause "toxic stress" that harms children's emotional and physical health. St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS

There’s a health crisis lurking in nearly every home. Medical science calls it toxic stress, which can start in childhood and continue over our entire lives.

The premise is very simple: When children and teens experience trauma such as physical and emotional abuse or neglect, or parents with addiction or serious mental health issues, the biological effects of that stress can actually harm their growing bodies and brains. These physiological changes can put children at much greater risk for diseases such as asthma and for learning difficulties. In adulthood, they can lead to obesity, heart disease, cancer and stroke.

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Chris Padula

All of this came to light in a landmark 1998 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, involving more than 17,000 Southern Californians. In the decades since, science continues to make a compelling case for strong connections between early adversity and long-term physical, mental and behavioral health consequences.

Now it's time for more awareness and action. This week, dozens of advocates from across the state, including from the Center for Youth Wellness and our partners at Children Now, gathered at the state Capitol.

Opinion

We told legislators that more than 40 percent of children and 60 percent of adults in California have experienced some form of childhood adversity. But with early detection and intervention, the effects of toxic stress can be mitigated and possibly reversed.

And when parents understand what toxic stress is, what the risk factors are, and how it can affect them and their kids, they can be the best advocates for taking action and protecting their families. In addition to raising awareness among parents, we need to do so in the medical community so that doctors can screen children for risk factors.

The health and cost implications are enormous for our state and nation. More than two out of every three men and women in the United States are considered overweight or obese. We have a cancer epidemic that kills a half million people every year. And heart disease remains the leading cause of death.

Tackling toxic stress won't end these scourges, but it has the potential for dramatic reductions across the board, saving lives and potentially billions of dollars.

California, famous for being the birthplace of national trends, can spark a movement on toxic stress. We hope that legislators are inspired to light that spark.

Chris Padula is executive director of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. He can be contacted at cpadula@centerforyouthwellness.org.
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