There is a crisis on the border. For some years, the nature of that crisis, its magnitude, and its causes were a matter of some debate. But with news reports last week of more than 2,000 children separated from their parents and housed in converted big-box stores, the situation became very quickly defined by heartbreaking images and audio of children in obvious distress. For pediatricians and mental health experts, it was immediately apparent that this is a mental health crisis in the making.
In the very first session of Spotlight Health, two experts on childhood trauma addressed the effects of this action in both the short and long term. Colleen A. Kraft is president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and her appearance in Aspen was her 49th interview since this situation appeared in the public consciousness just a week ago. She was joined by Ann Thomas, president and CEO of The Children’s Place, a treatment agency works with young children who have experienced abuse, neglect, and other traumas.
Kraft and Thomas didn’t mince words. The separation — under any circumstances, but especially in league with the trauma of a refugee journey — is a recipe for toxic stress, which affects neurobiological development, altering the physical architecture of a child’s brain. Kraft notes that the synaptic connections that would normally be forming in support of laughter, love, and learning are neglected as connections surrounding fear, aggression, and anxiety are strengthened. As a child’s brain develops under toxic stress, she said, “the ability to read will be trimmed away.”
We are, in short, creating the prefect conditions for a mental health epidemic. By altering the brain architecture of thousands of children, we are creating ongoing mental illness in the adults they become, and this expresses itself in physical disease, early childbearing, and domestic violence. That trauma spreads through families and communities, and from generation to generation.
Away from the border, there are other situations in which toxic stress is affecting children — think of the neglected and orphaned of the opioid epidemic, and children in war, and victims of human trafficking. But they are not the result of a deliberate policy decision. In the name of the law, the biggest crisis on the border is one of our government’s own making.