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Assessing impact of childhood trauma on adults

Conference speakers: Kenneth Hardy, left, with Christiana Ibilola Awosan, addressed the enduring racial aspect of adverse childhood experiences for people of colour (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

The ability for a child’s traumatic emotional experience to be converted into organic disease later in life was discussed at a conference in Bermuda.

Vincent Felitti, a co-principal investigator of Landmark US Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, was one of the final speakers at the Economics of Adverse Childhood Experiences conference held at the Hamilton Princess Hotel & Beach Club on Friday.

Martha Dismont, executive director at Family Centre, said that Dr Felitti shared a video of a woman who had lost a significant amount of weight over a one-year period but gained it all back in just three weeks.

Ms Dismont recalled: “Dr Felitti was startled and had never seen anything like it, but he discovered that she had been sexually abused as a child.

“When she lost the weight, someone asked her on a date which triggered those traumatic events for her and she put the pounds right back on.

“It happened again and again in different cases and Dr Felitti said that what looks like cause is not necessarily cause.

“McDonald’s is not the problem. It is what is causing you to go to McDonald’s in the first place.”

Shanell Vaughn, who runs the Building Resiliency in Meditation at the Co-Educational Facility and Prison Farm in Bermuda, spoke on the importance of meditation in healing trauma.

Ms Vaughn, who has a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology, is the founder of the Shambhala, and Peace within Prison Yoga Programme in Bermuda.

Ms Dismont added: “She talked about how meditation helps to calm the soul and spirit, and makes a huge difference in terms of helping inmates cope with their traumatic histories.

“The meditation helps them to cut off distracting thoughts and get to some core issues inside of their own psyche.”

Day one of the conference addressed the role of racial trauma, which speakers Christiana Ibilola Awosan and Kenneth Hardy said inflicted lifelong harm on people of colour.

Dr Awosan said: “Racism and racial trauma affect us mentally, emotionally, behaviourally and physically, all are connected to that experience of being oppressed in society.” She noted the pain linked to the sense of “not having my own identity or culture, and having to forcefully subscribe to the culture and language of whiteness and white people”.

A marriage and family therapist, she described her pain at being able to speak Yoruba, a West African language, but being unable to write it.

“Our language was erased,” she said, noting the “sadness and numbness that comes up” when people spoke of their racial trauma.

Dr Awosan recommended “being able to sit with that feeling and talk it out” as a technique of grappling with trauma.

She added: “White people need to sit with themselves, and interrogate themselves on why they don’t want to look at racial trauma, and the ways in which they continue to be part of that system, whether by action or inaction”.

Black people, she said, had been “conditioned to make white people feel comfortable”.

Dr Hardy, a clinician who trains others in trauma-based family therapy, said that early experiences “provide the blueprint for how one lives the rest of one’s life”.

He added: “I talked about what we can do with this phenomenon of racial trauma, looking through the lens of our own self growth.”

The therapeutic benefit of talking about trauma “sounds simplistic”, Dr Hardy said.

“Part of why there is such an allergic reaction to engaging in meaningful conversations about race is the way that all of our unique and not so unique experiences of race become the moral equivalent of our own dirty little secret.”

Dr Hardy added: “But talk allows us to regurgitate that experience, to vomit it out and deal with it.

“It’s messy and it’s instructive. It’s not original but there is an expression that when you’re in hell, it’s important to keep walking.”