California’s Surgeon General wants us to know about ACEs

Elinor Amir-Lobel, Copy Editor

As of January 2019, for the first time ever, California has a surgeon general. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris was appointed as California’s first surgeon general by Governor Gavin Newsom. Harris is a pediatrician with an impressive background. She received her college degree in integrative biology from UC Berkeley, earned her medical degree from UC Davis, did her medical residency at Stanford, and also picked up a master’s degree in public health from Harvard along the way. Harris wants to incorporate the study of ACEs into the health and education programs across the state. But what is a surgeon general and what are ACEs?

A surgeon general is the principal adviser to government on all things related to public health and scientific issues. ACEs are Adverse Childhood Experiences and the term is shorthand for pioneering research by Harris and her collaborators about the ways childhood trauma affects brain development and lifelong health. Harris would like California’s education system to conduct routine screening for early detection and intervention for kids that have high ACE scores. Here’s how it is measured: According to this system, there are ten categories of stressful events that children experience before age eighteen, and they include violence at home, neglect, abuse, extreme poverty, death of a parent, or having a parent with mental illness or substance dependence. Many children experience at least one of the ten traumatic events throughout their childhood, but the research found that children with higher ACEs–that is four or more such events–are far more likely to have learning, behavioral, and health problems both during childhood and during adulthood. Harris says that identifying this risk factor early will allow educators, health professionals, parents, and even kids themselves to take positive action to reduce their probability of experiencing further problems. For example, because trauma leads to an increase in stress hormones, one of Harris’s ideas is to teach meditation in school as a stress-reducer.

Harris, who is an African-American woman whose mother struggled with mental health issues when she was growing up, says she knows firsthand what it is like for a child to feel unsafe. She has worked as a pediatrician in underserved communities and gave a TED talk called “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime” which has been viewed by around three-million people. As Surgeon General she is advocating for each and every child. Her ultimate vision is that, by 2028, each and every child in America will be regularly screened for their ACEs and supported to help them succeed in life, overcoming any early trauma.  

Harris’ vision is ambitious and revolutionary: rather than focusing on health problems when they occur, focus on prevention and broad impact. Welcome aboard Surgeon General Harris!