What We Learned About Childhood Toxic Stress at Our 'Wounded Places' Film Screening and Discussion

Last week, Texans Care for Children partnered with the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health to co-host an event that brought together Texans who work in a variety of fields but all want Texas kids to grow up to succeed in school and life. We screened the film Wounded Places, an installment of the Raising of America documentary series that takes a hard look at the impact toxic stress has on children. While the film highlighted children growing up in violent communities, it also spoke to the insidious and long-lasting effects that poverty, instability, domestic violence, hunger, and illness can have a child’s development. The film called for tackling these causes of toxic stress, or "continuous traumatic stress,” and showed how counseling and other support can mitigate the impact of toxic stress.

The film was certainly thought provoking, but the real richness of the event came from the panel discussion facilitated by Dr. Lynda Frost of the Hogg Foundation. Dr. Craig Shapiro, Principal of Austin ISD’s Crockett High School, and Tisha Kolek, Director of Counseling Services for Taylor ISD, shared how toxic stress impacts the learning and well-being of the students on their campuses. Dr. Shapiro noted that graduation rates shot up at his school after he installed on-campus mental health services rather than referring students to off-campus services. Drawing on his experience, he said that if a student comes to class weighed down by toxic stress, there’s nothing the teacher can do to effectively educate the student. Ms. Kolek explained the training her district has provided to counseling staff to ensure they are equipped to seek out students in need and provide the support necessary to focus on their academics. All faculty at Taylor ISD have been trained in Mental Health First Aid.

Seanna Crosbie, LCSW, with the Austin Child Guidance Center urged services and systems working with children to adopt a trauma-informed approach to their work and create safe and supportive environments. Dr. Erin Espinosa with the Texas Institute of Excellence in Mental Health at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work pointed out that systems created to help children often re-traumatize them by inadvertently setting off triggers stemming from past trauma, and consequently push children with trauma histories deeper into our mental health, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems.

The research is clear. Many children, including those living in Texas communities, grow up experiencing fear, uncertainty, or continuous adversity. The presence of toxic levels to stress hormones on the developing brain alters the way a person’s body responds to the world around them. Even if those stressors are removed, a person’s brain and body have been wired to react differently to the world. It’s not just behavioral. It’s biological.

There are many things the state and communities can do help avoid and mitigate the impact of toxic stress on children. A good start is to ask not "What’s wrong with you?” but instead to ask "What happened to you?” A simple change in perspective can bring about big changes in a child’s life.

We have multiple opportunities coming up to raise awareness about the role of toxic stress in children’s lives and craft state policies to address it. As the new Texas House Select Committee on Mental Health gets to work, and as the state embarks on a transformation of its health and human service system, our policymakers must take a good hard look at the role adverse childhood experiences play in things like mental health, substance use, risky behaviors, treatment outcomes, and how far children penetrate our juvenile justice system and other systems. As we wrote in the San Antonio Express-News, the new House Committee should develop a statewide plan for addressing student mental health, building on the successes at campuses like Dr. Shapiro’s Crocket High School. Our child-serving systems (and let’s face it, our systems for adults, too) need to understand the prevalence and impact of toxic stress on health and behavior and have the knowledge, skills, and capacity to provide services in a way that helps heal wounds, and not create new ones.