California High School Health Clinic Asks Students About Childhood Trauma to Improve Their Health

Elsie Allen High School student Anabel (left), and Erin Moilanen, school health clinic nurse practitioner
Elsie Allen High School student Anabel (left), and Erin Moilanen, school health clinic nurse practitioner

Elsie Allen High School student Anabel (left), and Erin Moilanen, school health clinic nurse practitioner

ACEs Too High News:

When students show up for an appointment at the Elsie Allen Health Center, located on the Elsie Allen High School campus in Santa Rosa, California, one of the first things they do is answer questions about the trauma they’ve experienced during their lives.

That’s because research has shown a direct link between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) — which has been replicated by 29 states — also shows that ACEs create mental and physical health risks that continue to crop up over a person’s lifetime if not adequately addressed.

These can include developmental delays early in life, mental health and academic achievement issues in childhood, involvement in the juvenile justice system, and alcohol and drug abuse as a youth and adult.

The original ACE Study measured 10 types of childhood trauma, those that occurred before the age of 18. They are physical, verbal and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; a household member with mental illness, or who has been incarcerated or is abusing alcohol or other drugs; witnessing a mother being abused; losing a parent to divorce or separation.

(Got Your ACE Score?)

The researchers found that the higher a person’s ACE score, the greater the risk of health and social issues. For example, compared with someone who has an ACE score of zero, a person with four ACEs is 12 times more likely to attempt suicide, seven times more likely to become an alcoholic and twice as likely to have heart disease, according to the data.

At Elsie Allen Health Center, the students answer 16 questions instead of the original ACE Study 10-question survey. That’s because the questionnaire was designed by the clinic staff to address the kinds of experiences — such as homelessness and pregnancy — that are common among their students.

Seventy percent of the students at Elsie Allen High School are Latino, and most of their parents work in low-income jobs. Most of the school’s 1,100 students are covered by insurance and MediCal, and there is a sliding scale for older teens. The clinic is part of Santa Rosa Community Health Centers.

Erin Moilanen, a family nurse practitioner, is one of the core staff, which also includes two therapists, a pediatrician and a physician assistant. They began taking students’ ACEs histories a year and a half ago when Kaiser Permanente Northern California Region awarded the clinic a $50,000 grant to focus on trauma-informed care.

[Related: New Toolkit Issued to Help Providers Measure Trauma With ACES Survey]

“We started with a six-question questionnaire called the Childhood Traumatic Events Scale, but we realized it didn’t cover a lot of traumatic experiences, and it didn’t ask specific questions. The kids are very concrete, and some didn’t even understand what trauma meant,” says Moilanen.

So, in the second year of the program, which was funded again with $50,000 from Kaiser, the staff modified the questionnaire to include 16 questions relevant to the experiences of the students they had seen the first year. (Here are the  ACES questions they ask.)

Moilanen said 20 students come into the clinic each day, but typically only between one and three of the students are new. They are asked their ACEs history on their first appointment, and then annually. A therapist explains the ACEs form to them and why it is important: “Difficult things that happen to us can affect our choices and our health in the future.”

The kids get it, she said. Responses include “a lot of head nodding in agreement, looks of dawning understanding, and some ‘yeahs.’”

Moilanen said this is how she explains ACEs to the teens: “So I say something like, ‘We, the medical community, now know that when difficult things happen to us when we’re young, it can actually affect our health in the future, so we’re trying to ask kids when they’re younger to try to prevent some of the bad things from happening and help them have healthier lives.”

She added: “I feel that the kids answer honestly. We all like to talk about ourselves, and a lot of these kids don’t have people who are listening to them.”

Asking kids about their ACEs has had a greater impact on her work than any other information they ask the students for, such as asking about STDs or dental health, she said, because it helps develop better relationships with the students.

Because of construction issues that kept the clinic closed for a few months last year, only 200 students were asked about their ACEs history. This year, Moilanen said, they’ve had far more new patients since they were open during the summer. They have neither the time nor the money to analyze the data, which they have turned over to Kaiser.

As a result of asking students about their childhood adversity, however, the entire staff is “a bit more understanding about some of the behaviors of the kids. And I think we encourage counseling a lot more than we ever did before,” said Moilanen.

The staff has also assessed their own ACE scores and talked about handling vicarious trauma. Information for staff counseling is posted throughout the clinic as a result.

“There’s a different level of honesty and connection with the kids,” said Moilanen, who trained along with the other grantee staff at Kaiser workshops on trauma-informed care. “It feels like it’s going to make a bigger impact. Thinking back to my own experiences as a teen, it’s far more important to talk about these experiences earlier and prevent negative results from happening in the future.”

The clinic is just starting to get the school involved by getting permission to speak to the teachers about ACEs. Additionally, the clinic is turning a large room into a lounge area for the 100 or so students who visit the clinic each day so they’ll have a place to talk, get a free condom or piece of fruit, and to share their experiences.

This article was originally posted by ACEs Too High News.

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