Congresswoman opens up about childhood trauma: “It was a school nurse who saw the signs”

“There but for the grace for God go I,” Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley started off when invited to contribute to a special Congressional hearing last week about Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Childhood Trauma.

She, too, had been a victim of trauma and abuse, she revealed. And it was a school nurse who had signalled what was wrong:

I can say with certainty that it was a school nurse who saw the signs of trauma and abuse in my own life. And it is so important that the school community are trained in these indicators. Because yes, there are children that act out — but there are many more that shut down. And I was one of those children.

It’s hard to overestimate how important it is to highlight the role nurses can play in flagging trauma and abuse, as Rep. Pressley did with such candour at the Oversight Committee hearing.

Across a range of specializations, nurses are on the front line of dealing with the impact of harm, violence and disruption, both within families and beyond. They are among the first health care professionals who notice when something is wrong – and can do so all the more effectively when trained to do so.

This is true for adults, where nurses and other healthcare professionals can help identify and work with victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual abuse or human trafficking. And it’s all the more true for children, whose health can be acutely endangered by toxic stress from abuse or neglect, as California’s surgeon general Nadine Burke Harris explained in starkly lucid terms in an evocative recent Washington Post video.

Whether it’s “kids growing up in homes with substance abuse or mental illness.. girls and boys forced into sex trafficking, migrant children being separated from their parents, [or] students surviving a school shooting,” Burke Harris warned, all are more likely to face lifelong physical and mental health problems as a result.

That was the focus of the Congressional hearing too, which called attention to childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as “a pervasive public health issue with long-term negative health effects that cost the United States billions of dollars”.

A range of experts provided testimony in almost four hours of in-depth discussion to capture the nature and scale of the challenge and concrete ways to tackle it, which can be watched on the Oversight Committee’s website. Each of the testimonies can be read separately there as well. The Lucid Witness blog captured some of the highlights. “Relentless School Nurse” Robin Cogan flagged the event on her blog and repeatedly highlighted on her Twitter account how much the expert testimonies resonated, not least that of Prof. Christina Bethell. She immediately used it in her summer course at Rutgers-Camden School of Nursing as well.

Still, it was Rep. Pressley’s words which in particular struck a chord. She has talked openly before about her father’s struggles with substance abuse disorder and time in and out of prison, including in Congress, and mentioned having survived childhood sexual abuse as well. But her remarks now also drew welcome attention to the importance of school nurses in flagging potential harm, Cogan noted:

“I was elated to learn from @RepPressley that it was her school nurse who identified her trauma & abuse & connected her to help. .. Another reason why there must be a school nurse in every building, every day.”

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