By any measure, Will Strength lived a childhood of adversity. From what he recalls of his earliest years, he often went hungry. He endured turmoil and violence, watching his parents battle each other as well as addiction and mental health issues. When he was six, they split up. And he spent the rest of his childhood ricocheting from Alabama to Texas to Idaho, from parent to parent, experiencing physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as economic hardship. Eventually, he developed his own struggles with drugs and depression. At 16, he tried to hang himself with his own belt in the bathroom stall at work.
But the stall’s bar gave way.
“I was so lost,” says Strength, noting he was sober at the time. “It seemed the only way to end my pain. I didn’t think anyone really cared.” Taking the broken bar as a sign, he resolved to live.
Since then, he has worked to overcome the fall-out from his childhood experiences. With the right support, he has.
Adverse childhood experiences range from sexual, physical, and emotional abuse to physical and emotional neglect to a host of other hardships that children can face at home.
When children undergo such trauma on a chronic basis—and without the support of caring adults—they develop a toxic level of stress, which harms developing systems.
Toxic stress can lead to physical problems later in life. People with ACEs are at higher risk for chronic health problems—heart disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, and other immune system disorders. They also are more likely to experience mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, and impaired ability to concentrate and make decisions.
In 2022, the Idaho legislature recognized the critical importance of addressing ACEs by introducing a resolution to promote trauma-informed care for Idahoans.
“Without intervention, children with ACEs tend to stall developmentally, and are less likely to develop a sense of trust and hope, motivation or purpose, competence, and even a sense of self,” says Dr. Chris Streeter, a child psychiatrist at St. Luke’s in Boise.
Research shows that ACEs are far more prevalent in Idaho than in many other states, with troubling, far-reaching effects. Sponsored by Optum Idaho, the managed care contractor for the Idaho Behavioral Health Plan through the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Medicaid, a 2018 survey found that almost one in four Idaho adults reported four or more ACEs—a threshold amount for long-term physical and mental health impacts.
Follow-up research revealed that adults with four or more ACEs led far more difficult lives than their peers with no ACEs. They were more likely to have lower incomes, be unemployed, and have dropped out of high school. And they reported greater rates of depression and difficulties with memory, focus, and decision-making. For the past several years, Optum Idaho has been helping to create awareness about ACEs across the state and to train behavioral health care providers with young children and their parents to address these traumas. It also has partnered with schools to provide on-site clinicians to help students in need—most with multiple ACEs.
To read more stories from Optum Idaho of real Idahoans overcoming ACEs, click here.