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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tag: mental health

Childhood Trauma Shown to Shorten Lifespan

“Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today,” explained Dr. Robert Block, former President of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In a Ted Talk given by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris on the effects of childhood trauma throughout one’s lifetime, she revealed that childhood trauma increases the risk for seven of the ten leading causes of death in the USA.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris giving her Ted Talk. CC Image Courtesy of the Nadine Burke Harris website.

For those who are exposed to high levels of childhood trauma, life expectancy is 20 years shorter. They are also three times more likely to develop heart disease and lung cancer.

Dr. Burke Harris then summarized what she has been studying: adverse childhood experiences, referred to as ACEs, and their effect on health throughout one’s lifetime. ACEs include:

  • physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • physical or emotional neglect
  • parental mental illness
  • substance dependence
  • incarceration
  • parental separation or divorce
  • domestic violence

For every ACE that applied to the participant, they would get a point on their ACE score.

According to the study, 67% of the population has experienced at least one ACE.

The study then revealed that the higher one’s ACE score, the worse their physical and mental health outcomes tend to be.

It has been shown that growing up in lower income households often presents more severe levels of trauma for children. Unfortunately, this is a common dilemma for many. One out of every five children is born into poverty, and the cycle is difficult to break.

As seen with our 2017 Go Big Read bookHillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance grew up in a low-income household, facing adversities, which impacted his life as an adult.

Author J.D. Vance pictured with his grandmother. CC Image Courtesy of the J.D. Vance website.

Not only is it more likely for children in poor families to posses a high ACEs score, but it has also been noted that being raised in a low income household disturbs children’s brain development and academic performance.

In his memoir, Vance explained that when his mother moved him away from the comfort of his grandparents, he was unable to sleep, had depressed feelings, and his grades plummeted.

According to an article on the effect of childhood poverty on development and educational outcomes, children in chronically poor families have “lower cognitive and academic performance” and higher levels of behavior problems than children who are not poor.

It is painfully clear that childhood trauma and the environment that the child matures in can have a lifetime effect on their health and development. Although there have been large numbers of studies on these effects, finding a solution is not as straightforward.

However, Dr. Burke Harris remains hopeful.

“This is treatable. This is beatable… We are the movement.”

Gillian Keebler
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office

A Look at Solitary Confinement in the United States

A guard handcuffed a prisoner in his cell in the secured housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in California before opening the door. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

A guard handcuffed a prisoner in his cell in the secured housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in California before opening the door. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

A recent New York Times article, “Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life,” by Erica Goode, profiles the work of Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, and his work interviewing people who have been in solitary confinement in American prisons. Dr. Haney is the first person to study Americans who have been in solitary confinement for a significant amount of their adult lives.

The study includes interviews with 56 prisoners who spent 10-28 years on solitary confinement. His study offers insight into what long term solitary confinement does to mental health. While conducting interviews Haney was struck with the profound sadness of the inmates and concludes that long term solitary confinement leads to “social death.” He partially attributes what he calls “social death” to inmates in solitary confinement not being allowed to make personal phone calls and not being allowed any physical contact with visitors.

Approximately 75,000 American inmates are currently held in solitary confinement. Goode notes in her article that states are starting to reduce the number of people in solitary confinement due to public opinion, budgetary constraints, and lawsuits.

To read “Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life” click here.

The Lasting Impact of Nao’s Tale

After Ruth Ozeki’s presentation last week, it is important to remember that Go Big Read book selections continue
to have a lasting impact on our campus. A Tale for the Time Being has
become a platform for positive campus-wide discussion around mental health
issues and suicide, something that Ozeki herself hoped would happen. These
conversations raise awareness and serve as reminders to take care of ourselves
and our community. One student has chosen to share personal reactions to the
book from the perspective of someone who has struggled with anxiety and
suicidal thoughts. This student’s story reminds us that while Nao is a
fictional character, her experiences are certainly very real for many young
adults. This student story also speaks to the message that seeking help changes
lives for the better.

If you or a friend is struggling,
call University Health Services at (608) 265-5600, select option 9
for our 24-hour mental health crisis line. Help is always available. Remember, Umatter.  

—–
Begin student reaction —–
 

Nao held onto her suicide as a way of coping with her
uncertainties in life. It makes sense. I can’t stand uncertainty either, and I
had a really hard time accepting the uncertainty that comes with college.

Will I like my roommate?
Will I get into the business school?
Will I stay with my boyfriend or will one of us find
someone we like more?
Will I get a job after college?

The list goes on and on. Starting college, I wished
that I could just know the answers. It kept me up at night. Questions circled
round my head all hours of the day. I never felt at peace. I couldn’t stand
still, couldn’t relax, and always had headaches. 

It only got worse as my freshman year stretched on. I
was worried about a lot of things, but most of all, I feared what happened when
someone dies. During my senior year of high school, a girl in my grade
committed suicide. I had never understood what it really meant to feel haunted
until that day in 2011. I would wake up convinced that she was standing in my
room, watching me. As I would try to fall asleep, I imagined her hovering over
me, whispering into my ear. I couldn’t escape it, and I couldn’t understand why
she would do it. Why would anyone willfully take away their own life?

Well, as my anxiety raged on, I started to understand.
I was so worried about the future; wouldn’t it just be easier if I had no
future? Those worries would all go away. I would go away. I, like Nao, could
just hang onto the idea of suicide as a form of comfort. “Oh, it doesn’t matter;
I won’t be around much longer anyway.”

Lucky for me, as soon as these thoughts entered my
mind, I pictured my school the day after that girl died. I’m sure while she was
standing on those tracks that night in 2011, she had no idea how many lives her
actions were about to affect. She touched everyone at our school, from her best
friends to those freshmen that were pretty sure they had passed her in the
hallway a few times. Her death broke us. Any one of us would have given
anything to have her back in school again. You see, she was loved. She may not
have felt it, she may have been told contrary, she may have convinced herself
that she was utterly alone. It didn’t matter. She was loved. We loved
her.

Thinking back on those weeks after her death reminds
me of the value of a life. We had such an aversive reaction to her death – it
must be because we are made to live! As social beings, we need to rely on one
another. And when someone takes themselves out of the game, it affects all the
players. 

After my freshman year, I got help for my anxiety. I
was diagnosed with Generalize Anxiety Disorder, and started seeing a therapist
at UHS. Those hours we spent together changed my life. I understand that life
will always have uncertainties, and I’m working on embracing them. Now, I’m running
into life, not hiding from it. And although I still have bad days, overall I’m
much happier. For the time being, and hopefully for much longer than that, too. 

Are
you a student who is passionate about suicide prevention or mental health
promotion? Do you want to work to end stigma surrounding mental health issues
on our campus? Check out ASK.LISTEN.SAVE. to connect with student engaged in
these efforts or email outreach.spuw@gmail.com to learn more.

The Domino Effect in A Tale for the Time Being

Although not directly established in this novel, one of the
themes that struck me while reading A
Tale for the Time Being
was the risk associated with losing a loved one to
suicide. Nao’s story turned out (we hope) for the better, but there are many
real-life stories that have not been so fortunate. As we saw throughout the
novel, Nao frequently connected her own feelings of suicide to those same
feelings she saw through her father’s actions. While it was tragic that her
father was depressed to the point of taking his own life, what seems even worse
is that his daughter followed his example and perceived suicide as the only way
out of her struggles.
While we normally work under the assumption of prevention,
we sometimes forget that even after the battle has been temporarily lost in the
wake of a death by suicide, there is still prevention work to be done.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), nearly 10%
of all suicides can be connected to the idea of the Domino Effect or “copy cat”
suicides1.  Suicides sensationalized
in the media have been connected to others that follow similar methods.  Similarly, and perhaps more important, is the
idea that those who have recently lost someone to suicide or any unexpected
death, may be at a higher risk for suicide if not given the proper support to
get through this emotional and traumatic time. Given that 85% of us will lose a
loved one to suicide, this seems too important of a connection to pass-over2.
                                                                                            
In this way, we all have a job to do. Suicide is 100%
preventable if the proper resources and support networks are in place. We need
to be proactive about asking friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and
strangers how they are really doing and be educated in the resources we can
direct them towards. On page 286, Nao’s mother acknowledges Nao’s father’s
attempt at suicide by saying, “Of course it was an accident […] Silly Papa! How
could you be so careless?” As long as we continue to watch and ask our friends
and family how they are really doing and provide the support they need in good
times and bad, we can break out of the denial that Nao’s mother is content to
follow and save a life.
Erin Breen
Vice President
ASK.LISTEN.SAVE.

Emotional Intelligence: Why discuss sensitive topics in an academic setting?

University Health Services

“All
learning has an emotional base.” – Plato

As
our campus community comes together to read Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for
the Time Being
, readers may be taken aback by the themes of suicide,
trauma, and mental illness. Sensitive topics, such as suicide, can evoke a wide
range of emotions. These themes also bring up the questions, “What is the value
of discussing such sensitive topics in an academic setting?” and “How can they
happen in emotionally safe and meaningful ways?”

Emotional
intelligence refers to one’s ability to perceive, control, and evaluate
emotions. Building this intelligence is a crucial step in individual development.
Our feelings and emotions ultimately guide our thinking and actions, whether we
are aware of it or not. And, to get back to the question at hand, a key step in
developing emotional intelligence involves using emotions to promote thinking
and cognitive activity.

At
UW-Madison, we pride ourselves on providing a liberal arts education to our
students. The Wisconsin Idea promotes educational experiences both in and out
of the classroom. We hope that students leave our university with an
understanding of how their coursework is relevant to their lives and
communities. Emotional intelligence is an often undervalued aspect of a college
education that prepares people to navigate relationships and contribute to the
world around them.

Having
an open dialogue in an academic setting communicates to students that these
issues are important to both emotional and intellectual development. Talking
about mental illness helps reduce stigma and makes it clear that UW-Madison
respects the very real and diverse experiences students bring to the classroom.

If
conversations about trauma or suicide are happening in academic settings,
students need to know that instructors value their feelings and wellbeing. Instructors
can do this by providing a trigger warning before reading sensitive material.
Without a warning, students may feel bombarded with difficult memories or
emotions, especially if they have personally had traumatic experiences. Their
sole focus will be dealing with their own reaction to the material, which may
interfere with their ability to engage academically. Instructors can also help
create a safe space in the classroom by establishing
ground rules for discussion and stressing the importance of using respectful language
and listening practices.
Finally,
when discussing sensitive topics, instructors should know what resources exist
for any student who might feel triggered by the material. University Health
Services is available 24-hours a day if students need support processing their
emotions or have other mental health concerns. University faculty and staff can
also contact UHS at (608)265-5600, option 9 for after-hours mental health
crisis services.

For
a full list of mental health and suicide prevention resources, visit http://www.gobigread.wisc.edu/resources/HealthResources2013.pdf.

Valerie
Kowis
Suicide
Prevention Coordinator
University
Health Services