Increase and Enhance Protective Factors
Implement strategies that reduce the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and promote social-emotional development in children.
- Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs): ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood
(0–17 years old).
- Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that happen while a person is growing up, and they can have a lasting, negative effect on an individual’s health into adulthood. Examples include experiences such as abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, parental incarceration, divorce, or household issues with mental health or substance use. ACEs increase the risk for poor health outcomes, including the risk of suicidal behaviors.
The type of ACE that was experienced also significantly affects a person’s risk of attempting suicide. According to the research,12 suicide attempts were approximately:
- 2 times as likely where there was a substance use issue in
- 2 times as likely for those whose parents had divorced
- 2.5 times as likely for those with an incarcerated
- 2.5 times as likely if a mother experienced violence in
- 3 times as likely for those who had a relative with mental illness in the house.
- 3 times as likely for those who experienced physical abuse or sexual abuse.
- 5 times as likely for those reporting emotional abuse.
Though ACEs may increase the odds of having health challenges, ACEs do not necessarily lead to worse health outcomes. Increasing protective factors may help mitigate risk associated with ACEs and improve health outcomes. The risk of negative health effects of ACEs can be reduced when people have a strong support system and the skills to successfully cope with life’s many challenges. For adults, learning how to adapt to change and recover from setbacks can mean thoughtfully considering behavior and attitudes, learning from the past, and finding healthy ways to cope with daily stress. Some ways to build and maintain a healthy foundation at any stage in life include:
- Building strong relationships with family and friends.
- Setting realistic personal goals.
- Acknowledging when positive choices have been made.
- Eating well, getting plenty of sleep, and staying active.
- Taking proactive action when faced with a challenge.
For children, this positive support can be provided through:
- Caring relationships with parents, teachers, counselors, or other adults actively involved in a child’s life.
- Good peer relationships.
- Positive coping style.
- Good social skills.
This is particularly important for youth who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB). The CDC has reported that LGB youth are 4.5 times more likely, and questioning youth are over twice as likely, to consider attempting suicide as their heterosexual peers.13 Note that this CDC report did not include gender identity, such as transgender, as that data was not being collected until recently. Suicidal behavior among this population can be related to experiences of discrimination, family rejection, harassment, bullying, violence, and victimization. For those youth with baseline risk for suicide, especially those with a mental health condition, these experiences can place them at increased risk.
Schools have a great ability to lessen the impact of traumatic events in a young person’s life. Schools can become trauma-sensitive schools, which then makes them a protective factor for affected students and increases the social-emotional and academic skills of the entire school body.
Voices From the Field
"We know that just one engaged relationship with a trusted adult is the biggest protective factor for kids. We also know that these relationships and mutual supports are a key protective factor for adults when facing toxic stress. With the Coalition, we nurture the system of relationships around children by promoting compassion resilience of caregivers, by uplifting those most impacted by trauma as decision-makers, and by intentionally building community. When we transform our relationships, such as who listens to whom and who learns from whom, then we also change the power dynamics in the decisions that are key to reducing trauma and promoting the best outcomes for our whole community."
– Blake T., Milwaukee Coalition for Children's Mental Health
Another way to help build a foundation for a healthy and successful life is through social and emotional learning (SEL). SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. For children, making SEL skills part of the learning equation helps them succeed in school and life. With social and emotional skills, children can manage their feelings, build healthy relationships, and navigate social environments.
When the adults in children’s lives are supported by good policies and training, children develop the skills needed to prepare them for the world. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), in partnership with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), is committed to providing resources to schools and families to support comprehensive social and emotional learning opportunities for students.
DPI also provides information and resources for youth suicide prevention to school staff, administrators, school boards, and other members of the school community. These resources include data about youth suicide; information about Wisconsin laws addressing prevention; web-based training; student programs; as well as strategies for prevention, intervention, and postvention.
Alongside building individual resilience, there is a need to build resilient, healthy communities, as well as prevent ACEs at the community-level when possible. Community resilience is built by strengthening social inclusion and connectedness, economic opportunities, affordable housing, welcoming and affirming spaces, equal access to high-quality schools, and environments that promote good physical and mental health. In this way, the systemic root causes of risk behaviors and negative health outcomes can be addressed to improve health for all Wisconsin residents.
1A: Implement strategies that reduce the impact of adverse childhood experiences