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Sandi Larsen


Children are like sponges, absorbing the world as they grow. Childhood experiences often help shape who we become as adults. Some of those experiences are warm and loving. Others can have a negative influence on our development.

An influential study in the 1990s, called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study suggested that the more adversity or trauma you face as a child, the more likely you are to engage in risky behaviors or have poor health as an adult.

More than 60 percent of the individuals who participated in the ACE Study had a least one major adversity relating to abuse, neglect or growing up in a dysfunctional home. Montana is no different. Local data shows that many children grow up in less than ideal environments. In the Kids Count study, released in June by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Montana ranked 47th in the nation in overall children’s health.

Adverse childhood experiences have been linked to an increased risk of major medical conditions throughout an individual’s life including diabetes, heart disease, and other serious diseases. The risk also increases for unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

The ACE Study also showed negative childhood experiences can have an impact on mental health. Greater amounts of childhood trauma were associated with less overall satisfaction with life and more frequent symptoms of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. While adverse events can increase a person’s risk, adversity is not destiny. By knowing your ACE score, you can better understand your past and do something about your future. Positive healthy relationships can help lessen the effects of toxic stress.

To find out your ACE score you can visit, a local website with information and resources. Let your primary care provider know if you have experienced past or recent trauma. He or she may refer you to therapy or behavioral health support.

Some self-care strategies may also help you recover from trauma. The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare suggests these coping strategies:

  • Acknowledge that you have been through traumatic events.
  • Connect with others, especially those who may have shared the stressful event.
  • Add exercise to your routine — try jogging, aerobics, bicycling, or walking.
  • Learn to relax — try yoga, stretching, massage, mediation or other techniques.
  • Take up music, art, or other diversions.
  • Maintain a balanced diet and regular sleep cycle.
  • Avoid over-using stimulants like caffeine, sugar or nicotine.
  • Commit to something personally meaningful and important every day.
  • Write about your experience.

Since 2014, Healthy By Design coalition partners have trained more than 2,000 staff in the fields of social service, health care, faith-based care and education in recognizing the importance of adverse childhood experiences. Grant funding for the training in Yellowstone County came through the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health (OASH). Healthy By Design has also led an ACEs education campaign within the community to raise awareness and link people to resources. To learn more about how you can be part of this community response, visit

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Sandi Larsen, Behavioral Health Services Manager, may be reached at 247-3350 or