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Being dealt an ACE

October 27, 2021  By Isabelle Sauvé


It is hard to establish how childhood experience will impact someone in the future. A common experience can have a strikingly dissimilar effect on each individual involved. Some may have lived seemingly negative episodes in the first years of their existence that somehow become enriching and allows them to grow stronger as a result. For others, the same experiences or environment leaves a traumatic toll with multiple negative and long-lasting consequences on their adult life.

Highly targeted, The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study was the first large-scale endeavour to examine the impact of child abuse and related adverse childhood experiences on subsequent physical health and mental health. The ACE Study examined the relationship amongst ten categories of adversity experienced in childhood and wellness outcomes into adulthood.

The ACE categories included various forms of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction experienced in childhood: physical abuse; sexual abuse; verbal abuse; physical neglect, emotional neglect, an immediate family member who is depressed or diagnosed with other mental illness; an immediate family member who is addicted to alcohol or another substance; an immediate family member who is incarcerated; witnessing a parent being abused; and, losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason.

Later studies have expanded ACE to include gender discrimination, racism, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing violence outside the home, being bullied, involvement with the foster care system, living in a war zone and living in an unsafe neighbourhood. A striking correlative relationship was discovered between the degree of traumatic exposure and future physical, as well as psychological, health.

From a law enforcement perspective, and particularly from a recruitment and management standpoint, the results can be utilized to further understand how past traumatic events affect not only those whom we serve; but perhaps more importantly, how police applicants and current members may themselves have been impacted. The understanding of the potential significant long-term impact of early traumatic episodes can allow us to gain a better insight into how one reacts to situations and challenges today. It also provides a window into what approach may be most appropriate and effective when interacting with individuals who have experienced traumatic childhood events.

The results of the ACE study drew a clear link between the experience of childhood trauma and future social and psychological adjustment and well-being. The study also underscored the impact of trauma on human development and behaviour. The results indicated experiencing these ACE in childhood could trigger interacting stress response systems such as the metabolic regulatory, cardiovascular and immune systems. Toxic stress resulting from ACE can have a permanent detrimental impact on a child’s brain development and its function. ACE have been linked to various mental and physical health issues including depression, suicide attempts, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, lung disease and even premature death. When ACE are experienced multiple times, especially in the absence of supportive adult relationships to act as a protective buffer, these negative events are more likely to trigger excessive and enduring stress responses.

“In law enforcement, understanding that ACE are common can allow deeper understanding of some of the challenges people at calls for service, or fellow co-coworkers, may be facing.”

Astonishingly, the study recognizes that ACE are quite common. A projection of the study estimates that more than two-thirds of the population could report having dealt with at least one ACE. It also projects that nearly a quarter of the adult population may have endured three or more ACE. The findings bring implications for our medical and mental health systems. Furthermore, from a first responder standpoint, these statistics have a significant and widespread ripple effect.

In law enforcement, understanding that ACE are common can allow deeper understanding of some of the challenges people at calls for service, or fellow co-coworkers, may be facing. Understanding that exposure to adverse situations at a vulnerable – and relatively helpless – stage of life can pre-dispose individuals to future physical/mental health issues permits greater compassion. It also allows for the most appropriate and effective measure to be taken based on the situation, such as adopting a trauma-informed approach to prevent re-traumatization through our interactions. Having some comprehension of where another person is coming from allows for a greater connection and to have a greater impact. Having insight that early childhood trauma is linked to adult mental and physical wellness can allow frontline members to assist in providing protective buffers to children who have experienced one or more ACE. As the saying goes: “it takes a village to raise a child”. Law enforcement employees have the opportunity to make a difference and to seize opportunities to play an educational role when engaged in various situations.

It would be interesting for future studies to shed light on whether or not some degree of exposure to ACE during childhood may offer some protective factors and may contribute to resiliency. Perhaps frontline workers who have had some degree of exposure to adverse events early on in their lives are now more protected against the impact of trauma on the job. Research findings can offer a wealth of knowledge and evidence-based opportunities and should be used to make our police services more effective and robust.

Isabelle Sauvé is a 14-year veteran with the OPP, and currently the new Psychological Services Advisor in the OPP’s Healthy Workplace Bureau. She has a MA in psychology and is a PhD candidate. She is also an ultramarathon/endurance athlete and the Racing the Planet/4 Deserts 2018 Series winner as well as a Guinness World record holder. She can be contacted at:

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