Have a think about the defining moments of your childhood: how would you describe it? Was it generally happy? Or do you have a different experience? One of the most powerful accounts about growing up in a deprived community in Scotland, by Darren McGarvey in his book ‘Poverty Safari’, has struck a chord with the nation. The sad fact is, the author is not alone. Many people experience a number of traumas in childhood and Darren’s story makes a powerful case of the need for change. 

In the late 1990s, researchers in the United States did a study analysing the hallmarks of a difficult childhood, such as neglect, stress and abuse. They found that the more traumas that occur in childhood, the greater the likelihood of experiencing a range of health conditions as an adult, such as obesity, diabetes and depression. These stressful events came to be known as Adverse Childhood Experiences or ‘ACEs’. 

Here in Scotland, addressing adversity in childhood has become a priority of the political establishment, and improving the education and life chances of children and young people is the defining mission of the Scottish Government. 

As part of its work to increase understanding and stimulate debate around the ACEs research in Scotland, my organisation is helping the Scottish Government reduce the impact of childhood adversity. No one can do this work alone. To be effective, we need action across sectors and society as a whole. This work began with our ScotPHN report Polishing the Diamonds: addressing adverse childhood experiences in Scotland and gained momentum with screenings of a documentary on ACEs which we used to stimulate debate within the public sector and beyond. Resilience, The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope has now been shown across the country and has been hugely successful in highlighting the blight of ACEs and their consequent impact on health. Both the public and third sectors have a better understanding of ACEs and the need to do something about them. We’ve also started working with NHS Education Scotland to embed their trauma informed education framework that can be used by staff in any setting to support survivors of trauma. And we have set up our ‘ACEs Hub’ to progress national action. This isn’t just about raising awareness: the hub is contributing to the evidence base, as well as developing approaches with leaders from public health, mental health services, education, police, social work and third sector organisations to prevent ACEs and mitigate their negative impacts. 

In the Year of the Young Person, it’s only right that we continue to build on the strong foundation of learning around ACEs in Scotland. We know that ACEs aren’t the whole story about a person’s life chances, and they are not inevitable. Even if someone has experienced a number of traumas in childhood, there are things we can do to build resilience to mitigate them.

We’ve recently produced a short animation about the impact of ACEs in Scotland and, importantly, actions to prevent and respond to early adversity. Please watch and share it, and let us know what you think.

We’ve started the debate about ACEs in Scotland. It’s now time to overcome childhood adversity by us all working together to prevent it. 

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