Here’s a recently published study that I hope will turn out to become a landmark and be the last of its kind that ever needs to be done: Child Abuse and Cancer. Essentially, abused children run almost a 50% higher risk for contracting cancer later on as adults than those who haven’t been abused. Admittedly, many of the causes of cancer remain mysterious and complex, but as a result of reading books like Bob Scaer’s The Body Bears the Burden and The Trauma Spectrum, and oncologist Gabor Mate’s When the Body Says “No!,” this study makes perfect sense to me. I’ve often wondered why, on a percentage basis, incidents of cancer have increased so profoundly over the last 100 years? I think a pretty compelling neurological case could be made that is it because incidents of child abuse have increased as well, perhaps leaving many children’s brains severely compromised like this.
The High Costs of Doing Nothing
Several years back, Suzette Fromm conservatively calculated the direct and indirect annual costs of child abuse from reported incidents at 100 billion dollars. Privately, she told me that she only used reported incidents (which is estimated at only 6% of all incidents), because when she told people what she thought the real costs were, based on all incidents of child abuse in America, people’s eyes glazed over or they simply didn’t believe her. It’s kind of like Freud during the Victorian era refusing to believe that the primary cause of so many of his women patients’ difficulties were rooted in the sexual abuse they experienced as kids. His incredulity forced him to contort his thinking until he finally came up with the bizarre explanatory fiction called: Penis Envy! Not one of his finer contributions.
But if we don’t distort our own thinking like Freud, and add adult-onset cancer to the list of annual abuse costs, which was $72 billion in 2004, I’m pretty sure we can add over another $100 billion dollars to those costs.
Controlling for Abuse
And then, of course, abused children often turn out to be abusers themselves. Why? Because the damage that has been done to them often prevents abused children from being able to self-regulate their emotional reactivity to the people and circumstances that life brings their way as adults (or that their brains unconsciously draw them to, in futile attempts to compulsively heal the trauma?). Because they can’t control themselves, as a society we are forced to find other means to try to provide “self-control.” We call one of those “other means” prisons. Prison-building, as you may know, has exploded here in America in recent years. America has five percent of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
If we add in the $50,000 annual cost of housing the 2.2 million people in prison in America in 2006, we can add another 100 billion dollars to our growing costs! And that’s not factoring in the lost productivity and opportunity costs that would be obtained were these folks well and working to make a positive contribution to the world.
More Money, More Suffering
Paraphrasing the observation popularly attributed to Senator Everett Dirksen, “A hundred billion here and a hundred billion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the real total costs of child abuse in this country were over a trillion dollars annually. (To get a proportional sense of these numbers, consider that a million seconds is a little less than 12 days. A billion seconds, roughly 32 years. A hundred billion seconds is just shy of … 320 years. A trillion seconds puts us back 100 years before Christ, and sends us forward into a very tentative future).
So, disease and crime and early abuse are all connected, resulting in a lot of money being spent, money that will most likely not pay much of a return, mostly because so many parents, teachers and caregivers don’t really know when their actions are causing damage. Nor do they know how to repair such damage once it’s occurred. In my opinion, this is where the real education and interventions need to be aimed – at the harm that is done unwittingly to our children as a result of simple ignorance (for example, screaming at kids!).
Profound Human Suffering
Underneath all that money, what we’re really talking about though, is profound human suffering. And it’s suffering that’s widespread, suffering that begins early and often repeatedly recurs over a lifetime.
It was out of making these connections between early abuse and lifelong suffering, that it seemed to make the most sense to me to attempt to focus on early, optimal interventions. A lifetime of leverage can be gained by beginning to educate parents, teachers and caregivers about the brain, even when children are still in utero. Together with continued, mentored learning, like that provided by the midwife Colorado-based, Nurse-Family Partnership, we can greatly optimize the first three years of every child’s development in areas like immune and executive function, social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, and basic overall human goodness.
It seems like something not only “best for the children,” but ideal for the caring, connected adults it’s possible to become as well.