Meeting discusses impacts of childhood trauma

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LISA KOBLE, a licensed clinical social worker working in the Mission Valley, explains the health risks associated with childhood trauma during a panel discussion hosted by the Flathead Reservation Human Rights Coalition. (Brett Berntsen/Lake County Leader)

While it might seem obvious that traumatic childhood experiences would carry long-term impacts, local experts gathered last week to discuss some of the unforeseen consequences.

“What’s interesting is how this disrupts neurodevelopment,” said Lisa Koble, a licensed clinical social worker from Charlo.

Koble was the featured speaker at the panel discussion organized by the Flathead Reservation Human Rights Coalition. Combining scientific research with practical, day-to-day approaches, Koble and her colleagues explored ways to build resilience against trauma in local communities.

Broadly speaking, Koble said exposure to constant stress at a young age can stunt the growth of a region of the brain called the hippocampus, generally considered to be the center of emotion and memory. This underdevelopment can manifest itself in a range of symptoms, from hyperactivity to disassociation. What’s encouraging, Koble said, is that studies have shown this condition is not permanent and can be reversed through therapy.

“You can regain function,” Koble said. “My whole function is understanding what role we as a community can play in that process.”

Rather than immediately concluding that a problematic child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, Koble said often times a more appropriate diagnosis would be post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Educational institutions form a crucial link in providing children with treatment.

Koble, who works closely with the Ronan School District, said teachers and office staff often work on the front lines of behavioral health.

“They are constantly bombarded with issues,” she said, adding that the schools end up playing a variety of roles in the lives of students, from mental health facilities to youth court systems.

From her experience, she said Ronan district officials have taken vast strides toward promoting trauma awareness.

“I’ve seen nothing but positive interactions,” she said.

Stacy McElderry, a social services investigator with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said programs have grown on a whole since she was in school.

“There’s a lot more here on the reservation compared to 20 years ago,” she said.

Continuing this trend remains a challenge, however.

One school worker who wished to remain anonymous said her district has pushed aside mental health programs in favor of a “cowboy mentality.”

Koble said unfortunately this way of thinking is common throughout Montana, contributing to its top five ranking among states with the highest suicide rate.

“One of the reasons is because of that ‘cowboy mentality,’” she said.

Speakers at the meeting agreed that conveying this message to school administrators is crucial to prompting change.

Elaine Meeks, a former administrator herself, said there are concrete parameters showing the importance of mental health.

“There’s a direct relationship to test scores,” she said. “It’s not just all this fuzzy stuff. You can’t learn if you can’t self regulate.”

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