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Recognizing Adverse Childhood Experiences would create a trauma-informed Princeton

<h5>McCosh infirmary, East entrance.</h5>
<h6>Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
McCosh infirmary, East entrance.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here. 

Content Warning: This guest contribution contains mentions of suicide, and domestic violence. 

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I recently read President Christopher Eisgruber ’83’s interview with The Daily Princetonian, in which he discusses the mental health of students.

As an Alaska Native Princeton alumnus from the Class of 1975, I applaud the start of this important conversation. I had my own experience with academic rigor and stress, but from a different perspective than President Eisgruber. I came to Princeton as a 17-year-old public high school graduate who lived with poverty for almost a decade in an urban center. I grew up as a victim of what is referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

ACEs include a host of parent behaviors and/or childhood situations: absent biological parents, witnessing domestic violence in the home, emotional abuse, and an alcoholic parent, among others.

ACEs are rarely discussed in terms of how they show up, including in campus mental health crises. After 14 years of intense personal study of the science behind Adverse Childhood Experiences, I believe we need a trauma-informed campus, which takes into account ACEs when wrestling with these complex issues.

The key finding behind a study on ACEs is that what happens to you as a child matters later in life. The principal investigators studied 10 common parent behaviors experienced by children that affect them as adults. Many Princeton students may have ACEs — after all, they are not uncommon. The State of Washington examined a typical classroom of 30 students and found that one-third had four or more ACEs. Why would Princeton be any different?

When I came to Princeton in 1971, I arrived with multiple adverse childhood experiences, akin to preexisting conditions. I experienced clinical depression at the end of my freshman year. After spending days at McCosh Infirmary, I was allowed to return home and make up my exams once I had returned as a sophomore. This opportunity was key to my success at Princeton. A more trauma-informed campus could better help people in my situation, which is why I am encouraged by the conversation about mental health. I have seen echoes of my own experience at both Princeton and Yale in recent years.

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Greater awareness of the role that ACEs have in harming college-aged people needs to be part of our toolkit on every campus. Exposure to seven of 10 studied parental behaviors as a child is tied to a greater risk of attempting suicide. Thirty-five percent of patients in the original study with seven or more ACEs had attempted suicide. In contrast, those with no ACEs had an attempt rate of just 1.1 percent. 

Adverse childhood experiences cannot be divorced from the way one processes the stress from academic competition or the use of alcohol and drugs. Mental health, drug abuse, and stress are all correlated with ACEs. These students are at a higher risk, and the University must invest resources into supporting them.

Many Princetonians continue to experience the negative outcomes of ACEs, before, after, and during their time at Princeton. Those of us with ACEs experience higher rates of depression, victimization, and disease including COPD, cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases like lupus and arthritis. People who have been identified as experiencing more than six ACEs have, on average, a 19.5-year shorter lifespan.

So to President Eisgruber, the dialogue you have chosen to initiate is one that expresses some recognition of unpleasant realities. In so doing, as our leader, you can inspire the tremendous intellectual capacity among faculty and staff to foster a better understanding of the extent of toxic stress caused by ACEs at Princeton, and how this stress manifests itself. Then perhaps we can all apply ourselves and our resources to become a beacon and a model of what is best termed a healing campus for the benefit of all.

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Patrick Anderson ’75 is the former CEO of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program. 

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