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Intersection of historical trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences in Indigenous communities

American Indian Resource and Resiliency Team works at the intersection of historical trauma and ACEs in Indigenous communities

Getting to the root of a problem is a critical first step to addressing it. Unfortunately, when it comes to unresolved historical trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in Indigenous communities, far too often we get caught up in confronting their symptoms without understanding what is driving them. The initial ACEs study, which was conducted in the early 1900s with over 17.000 study participants, showed a strong connection between childhood adversity and physical, mental and behavioral problems later in life. Science has also been able to show how the experiences and traumas of our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents can turn on or off genetic code through something called epigenetics. This understanding can help us connect the dots between the impact of historical trauma on Indigenous communities over the past 500+ years, and the disproportionate ACE scores in Indigenous communities today. The ongoing impacts of historical trauma and the resulting ACE cycles have also lead to disparate ACE attributable problems such as heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, depression, suicide attempts and substance use disorders. 

This understanding has been foundational for the work the American Indian Resource and Resiliency Team (AIRRT) does with our Indigenous partners to address opioid use issues and related substance use disorders. Research has shown a strong, graded relationship between ACEs and substance use issues including: early initiation of alcohol use; higher risk of mental and substance use disorders as an older adult (50+ years); continued tobacco use throughout adulthood, prescription drug use, as well as a 2-4 fold increase in lifetime illicit drug use, drug dependency and self-reported addiction (SAMHSA’S Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies). Addressing unresolved historical trauma and the existing ACE cycles in Indigenous communities is a focus of the AIRRT to help our Indigenous partners address the opioid and SUD issues in their communities. 

Another part of the AIRRT work includes sharing this information with other organizations, departments and systems that interact with Indigenous communities, such as the medical field. In partnership with ECHO, a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to “connect specialists with on-the-ground practitioners to bridge health gaps in rural communities,” the AIRRT was asked to do a presentation called Weaving the Understanding of ACEs, Historical Trauma and Resilience for Healing in Tribal Communities to 16 medical students in their third year of school. A follow-up evaluation showed all 16 medical students found the presentation helpful for understanding how one’s background can impact their risk for use disorders. One student stated, “I found it to be very informational and provided me with the knowledge/resources to better understand my patients as well as help them.” Another said, “Great talk about a topic that isn't in the public eye nearly enough. Really important perspective for those who plan to be serving Native communities.” Dr. Kurt Devine, the ECHO partner stated, 

“The first time I saw Susan present her talk on historical trauma and ACE scores as it relates to the Native American community I knew right away this was a talk we needed to add to our curriculum for third year medical students on rural rotations. Dr. Heather Bell and I reached out quickly to the University to add this and eliminated one of our usual talks to make room for her. The response to her talk was overwhelming and the number of positive reviews from the students was amazing. We are hoping to make her part of our yearly curriculum. Her passion for this topic is unmatched.”

Continuing to find ways to partner with internal and external partners to enhance and expand the impact of the AIRRT’s work to support tribal communities is a priority for the team.

Related topics: Family
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