Childhood Adverse Experiences, Mental Health, and the Adventist Church

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On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:17 NIV)

The issue of mental health has long been hidden in the darkness. A certain stigma—a negative one—has been associated with the topic, making it a social taboo. However, in the last few years, mental health advocates have been working hard to bring this topic into the public eye. Celebrities, athletes, and other public figures are, for the first time, speaking out about their own mental health issues. By acknowledging mental health as an important topic we, as a society, are able to understand the issues and concerns in a deeper sense; additionally, we can work to provide support and assistance for those who suffer from mental illness in any capacity.

In his 2018 presentation to the Adventist Human Subject Researchers Association (AHSRA), Dr. David Williams, Florence and Laura Norman Professor of Public Health and professor of African & African American Studies and of Sociology at Harvard University, addressed the topic of how childhood experiences impact health. Williams maintains that mental health is an important part of one’s overall health—a topic that Adventists frequently discuss.

One of the points that Dr. Williams emphasizes is that many health issues can be linked to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Adverse Childhood Experience includes psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; household disfunction, such as alcoholism or drug use in home, loss of a biological parent, depression or mental illness in home, mother treated violently or an imprisoned household member. A 2016 study conducted by Slopen, Shonkoff, Albert, Yoshikawa, Jacobs, Stoltz, and Williams showed that while over half (52%) of children in the United States ages 0-17 experience no adverse experiences during childhood, a quarter (25%) experience at least one ACE. Even more concerning, almost the same number (23%) experience two or more ACEs.

Childhood adversity is a good predictor of future mental health issues. In fact, research has shown that the more ACEs a child experiences, the higher their chances are for becoming depressed as an adult (Chapman et al., 2004). In fact, children who endure five or more ACEs are five times as likely to experience adult depression as those who experience none.

However, childhood adversity is not only a predictor for mental health concerns, but for physical concerns, as well. Research shows that children who experience five or six ACEs are nearly twice as likely to experience heart disease as children who do not experience ACEs. Even more troubling, children who endure seven or eight ACEs are almost three and a half times more likely to experience heart disease than children who have not (Dong et al., 2004).

Additional studies have revealed that emotional and instrumental support in childhood is associated with less biological dysregulation in mid-life (Slopen, Chen, Priest, Albert, & Williams, 2016). Furthermore, positive childhood experiences are indirectly associated with ideal cardiovascular health: through education, and social support (Slopen, Chen, Guida, Albert, & Williams, 2017).

What does all this mean? And how can we, as a church, respond? Williams believes that a “comprehensive health ministry must include [the] promotion of good mental health as a part of an abundant life.” We cannot simply focus on ministering to people’s physical health and neglect their mental health. And, while we cannot undo damage that has already been done in the past, William encourages our churches to “transform our religious communities from being sources of social conflict and criticism to being sources of love, joy, encouragement, and hope.” By doing so, we create a safe space for those who are desperately in need of our Savior to come, be loved, and to heal.

As a church, it is time to remove the stigma associated with mental illness. We must open our doors to those in need and show them the transformational love and goodness of our God. To read more about the effects of warm and welcoming church atmospheres, check out this series of blogs: “A Warm and Caring Church”