A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Commentary: A better understanding is essential in addressing Kentuckians’ mental health needs

By Barry Allen and the Bloom Kentucky Advisory Council
Special to NKyTribune

“What’s wrong with you?”

If you have struggled emotionally in public or amongst family or friends, you may have been asked this question. Maybe you’ve snapped at your child after losing your patience in the cereal aisle of the grocery store and a stranger gives you that questioning look. Or perhaps you’ve asked this question when working with kids who have behavioral outbursts.

What if instead you asked, or were asked, “what happened to you?”

It is an essential question many in the mental health field pose to allow for open-ended responses in a trauma-informed way. It also allows a better understanding of the behavior or emotion and how to help, rather than criticizing or punishing.

May is Mental Health Month. And now more than ever it’s important to recognize how your mental health is shaped by experiences and environments over time – both adverse and supportive.

Adverse childhood experiences. Toxic stress. Trauma. Maybe you’ve heard these terms, or maybe they are new to you, but what do they really mean? Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic or stressful events before the age of 18, such as experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, drug or alcohol misuse issues in the household, separation from a parent due to incarceration, or unaddressed mental health conditions of a parent.

When children experience trauma, it overwhelms the brain’s capacity to cope. Over time this toxic stress can reduce a child’s ability to manage its emotions and may make it difficult to learn, play, or respond to challenging situations. If not addressed, as children exposed to trauma become adults, toxic stress can increase the risk of intimate partner violence, heart disease, and suicide.

The ripple effects ACEs have on individuals are complex, often with generational impact, which means we need holistic, multi-generational solutions. To address ACEs, we must also understand and address the community conditions in which kids grow up, such as the cyclical impact of poverty, discrimination, and community violence. These are further exacerbated for communities of color due to long standing inequities, resulting in barriers to opportunities.

While ACEs are common, the good news is research shows when caregivers provide physically and emotionally safe environments for children and teach them how to be resilient – to solve problems, build nurturing relationships, and manage their emotions – the negative effects of ACEs can be reduced. A child’s resilience is built, and their well-being is strengthened by community ties and opportunities to thrive.

Bloom Kentucky is a statewide initiative focused on addressing that negative cycle of worsening “soil,” or environments, for a child’s “tree” of experiences by impacting the root causes of ACEs. We can and must cultivate a Commonwealth where all children can flourish.

To reach that goal, it will take strong families, supportive community members, and bold lawmakers.

The Kentucky General Assembly has taken important steps toward addressing ACEs, such as investing in quality child care access and school-based mental health supports. Yet, more must be done to support children now and set our youngest Kentuckians up to thrive, such as strengthened investments in home-visiting and early childhood programming, minimizing the impacts of parental incarceration on children, and further commitment to creating trauma-informed environments.

Working together – from our cities to our mountains and from our farms to our suburbs – we can reduce the impacts of childhood adversity and prevent harm from occurring in the first place. Let’s start by creating more caring communities. The next time you see a frustrated parent or struggling child begin with, “what happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?”

Bloom Kentucky is an initiative supported by grantmaking organizations from across the Commonwealth who are invested in ending Adverse Childhood Experiences — learn more at BloomKentucky.org. Barry Allen is President & Treasurer of The Gheens Foundation, Inc. The Bloom Kentucky Advisory Council consists of the Brown-Forman Foundation, Central Kentucky Community Foundation, Community Foundation of West Kentucky, Community Foundation of South Central KY, the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, The Gheens Foundation, The Greater Clark Foundation, Lawrence & Augusta Hager Educational Foundation, Jewish Heritage Fund, and Marilyn & William Young Charitable Foundation.

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