Written by: Natalie Fuertes
Earlier this month HBO premiered the documentary “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal”. The film features brave testimonials from a number of gymnasts who were sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar, the osteopathic physician for the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team, as well as a physician at Michigan State University (MSU).
While the documentary doesn’t offer a whole lot that hasn’t previously come to light, it does highlight the systemic abuse that enabled him to continue his abuse for so many years and it leaves us with the burning question - how do we help those victims move forward? As we continue our discussion on mental health issues this month, it’s important to remember that childhood trauma has a huge impact on future health issues. Your past experiences, your trauma, your pain, doesn’t just magically disappear. As hard as you work to move past it and learn about your triggers and techniques to overcome them, it will always be there.
Toxic stress damages children’s developing brains. When events are threatening or harmful (think: you’re walking through the woods on a leisurely hike and you run into a bear), your brain immediately goes from thinking and analyzing mode to fight, flight, or freeze mode. Your heart rate increases and stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, flood the body. Eventually your body returns to normal levels (and hopefully that bear goes on to eat some berries). But what happens to your brain chemistry after repeated and frequent periods of stress?
The The CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study is the groundbreaking public health study which discovered that childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases, depression, and other mental illness. According to ACE’s Too High, ACEs are adverse childhood experiences that harm children’s developing brains and leads to changing how they respond to stress, which damages their immune systems so profoundly that the effects show up decades later.
The study measures 10 types of childhood trauma - five of which are personal (physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect) and five of which are related to other family members (an alcoholic parent, a mother who is a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment). You can actually take the ACE test here to see how you score.
The study revealed that:
64% of adults have experienced at least one category of childhood trauma.
People with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be an alcoholic. It also increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400% and attempted suicide by 1200%.
People with an ACE score of 6+ are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years.
The more categories of trauma experienced in childhood, the greater the likelihood of experiencing the physical and mental health consequences below:
With this understanding of how childhood trauma affects us later in life, think about how many gymnasts we’re sending out into the world with lasting physical and mental health issues. After the sexual abuse scandal hit mainstream media, and Nassar was convicted and sentenced, there has since been a lot of push back from industry leaders in the gymnastics world. They feel that discussing the abuse is opening an old wound and that the only way to move past it is to stop bringing it up. And while that would be more pleasant and certainly a lot easier for us gym owners, the survivors of abuse don’t have that luxury. Simply not discussing what took place doesn’t mean that the survivors are healing, it just means that we’re forcing them to heal alone instead of providing them with the support they need to work through it.
It's time we start providing our gymnasts with “trauma-informed care”, where we treat the whole person, taking into account past trauma, and the resulting coping mechanisms. Watch the “60 Minutes” special with Oprah Winfrey as she reports on these methods in an effort to break the ACEs cycle:
We need to do better - as adults, communities, and institutions. It's time we start asking our gymnasts "What happened to you?" instead or "What's wrong with you?" Because the reality is it's our responsibility to help them overcome their childhood trauma and live a healthy, successful life. The key is to ensure that they have positive adults in their lives who can buffer those negative experiences.