I just had a haunting consultation with a patient who, in their fourth decade and following a diagnosis of lung cancer, started unpacking their box of trauma that had been filled – without their knowledge or consent – since their childhood.
We all face adversities of some form throughout life and yes, some have it far worse than others. Although relative to our own personal circumstances, one cannot deny that exposure to high levels of stress and trauma in childhood impacts the quality and development of mental, emotional and physical well-being as we grow into adulthood.
As a GP who gets insights into people’s evolving life stories and is fascinated with the root causes of disease, I often find that the seeds of the presentations before me, are often planted at the outset of that individual’s life. We know that our environments play a huge role in our sense of well-being.
For example, a supportive, nurturing and encouraging environment at work will allow an employee to thrive in their role. One where there is bullying and harassment will result in a loss of productivity and growth. The same goes with our personal environments. When we learn to treat one another with mutual respect, irrespective of age or superiority, we begin to see a shift in dynamics which benefits the whole unit.
We know that there is a direct link between the types of food we are exposed to, our physical activity levels in childhood and the development of heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. Similarly, early exposure to trauma, abuse and violence gives rise to mental health, behavioural and emotional problems. We know it’s all connected.
So it’s no wonder that I feel appalled to learn that there has been resistance to the smacking ban bill here in Scotland.
Hitting a child is physical abuse. It doesn’t teach discipline. It teaches kids that physical assault is acceptable if you want someone to obey your wish.
A light smack to one person means something completely different to another and, as a doctor working with young, vulnerable people, I’ve seen far too many “light smacks” go wrong.
Children need protected and that is the duty of their care-giver but when children are exposed to adverse stressful experiences, it can have a long-lasting impact on their ability to think, interact with others and ultimately on their learning.
The truth is that if we can tackle the issue of violence and abuse against children, we can make waves in tackling some of Scotland’s biggest public health and economic development challenges.
Adverse childhood experiences should not be seen as the destiny of someone. Children need to be given the safe space to be taught about the challenges they may encounter in the world someday but those traumas should not be on their doorstep.
We are going through epidemics of sorts with chronic diseases largely attributable to our lifestyle habits. If we are to reverse these trends, we need to collectively go back to the origins of such diseases. If we eat badly, we cannot teach our kids to eat well. If we glamourise alcohol, drugs and smoking, we must not act surprised when our kids follow in our footsteps.
If we use violence to express our frustrations, it would be naive to expect anything different from our kids. The future of the next generations is in our hands.
Dr Punam Krishan is a GP and is on Twitter @drpunamkrishan