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Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris Pioneers Way to Treat Stress in Children, a Startling Source of Future Disease

Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician in San Francisco, is advocating for all children to be screened for traumatic experiences, which, research shows, have a long-term impact on health. She is a Heinz Award winner  (Photo by Jason Henry)

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Soon after Nadine Burke Harris opened a pediatrics clinic in a low-income neighborhood in San Francisco, she began grappling with the high rates of asthma and other illnesses that she was diagnosing in her patients. She wanted to understand why so many of the kids she saw were so sick.

“They would have chronic abdominal pain, headaches, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, opposition defiant disorder,” she said. “It could be that all these different kids have all these diagnoses, or it could be that there is one thing at the root of this.”

She found an answer in a decade-old study that showed a strong link between chronic disease and traumatic experiences during childhood — things such as physical abuse or neglect, or living with a family member addicted to drugs or alcohol. She knew the children she saw lived with high “doses” of adversity, she said, and it made sense: Trauma was affecting their developing brains and also their developing bodies.

So she began to regard her practice in a whole new way. She started evaluating children not just for their medical histories, but also their social histories. And instead of treating only symptoms, she sought to help with the root causes of the stress that were making them sick.

She screened all the children at her clinic for traumatic experiences, and she built a new kind of medical center for those who screened positive. At the Center for Youth Wellness, which opened in 2011, children and their parents can see mental health workers, learn about mindfulness and other relaxation techniques, and meet with case managers who connect them with social services.

Harris’ novel approach to health care, and her personal story, are gaining national attention. Her work has been profiled in a best-selling book by Paul Tough and a documentary film. Her health center has attracted major funders, including Google.org.

Last month, she spoke at the White House for a conference about trauma. And this week, she was honored in Pittsburgh with the Heinz Award for the Human Condition, one of six prizes given annually by the Heinz Foundation to “exceptional Americans, for their creativity and determination in finding solutions to critical issues.” The award comes with a $250,000 prize.

“I think we have reached a tipping point,” Harris said in an interview.

The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014 announced the launch of a Center on Healthy, Resilient Children to help pediatricians identify children with toxic stress and help intervene. Local chapters are training pediatricians.

A screening tool for childhood trauma on the center’s website has been downloaded 1,100 times. Harris’s goal is for every pediatrician to screen children for trauma. Continue reading “Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris Pioneers Way to Treat Stress in Children, a Startling Source of Future Disease”