The opioid epidemic wreaks havoc on America. In my “drug infested den” home state of New Hampshire, 485 people died from an overdose in 2016, one of the highest per capita rates in the country. As the death toll increases, hundreds of children in my hometown are left without a family. This wildly expensive problem costs billions of dollars and thousands of lives worldwide. It would seem we need to cut costs so to speak, and there is an easy solution:
Invest in the kids.
In 2015, there were 683,000 cases of child abuse reported to Child Protective Services. These are only reported studies that meet the criterion that CPS has set for abuse. Other studies suggest that as many as one in four children experience abuse or neglect in their lifetime. That’s twenty five percent. A quarter of children experience abuse, neglect or other adverse experiences.
Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs contribute to future violence, victimization and drug use, as well as a range of serious emotional and physical health issues in adults. The CDC keeps track of the current state of ACEs as best they can, and they have developed this helpful graph:
Basically, when a person experiences chronic difficulties in their childhood, the likelihood of adult problems increases severely. According to the CDC, illicit drug use often follows ACEs. These childhood experiences are extremely common, it is unacceptable that 13 percent of children experience four or more ACEs.
Early intervention is the name of the game. When kids are growing up the connections and pathways in their brains are rapidly and constantly forming. Toxic stress, the chronic activation of the body’s stress response system, literally rewires the brain. When harmful pathways in a young brain are created by ACEs, the groundwork for a healthy lifestyle is almost impossible to lay. This isn’t just kids having a little scare. The chemical structure of their brain is altered with lifelong consequences for their health.
ACEs can lead to heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, liver disease, and high levels of harmful proteins. These are real, measurable, physical diseases. This stuff is serious, but it can be prevented.
Toxic stress causes children to be one and one half more likely to engage in illicit drug use
Some might say that investing in childhood is too expensive, when we have other more important issues on the horizon. This is pure falsehood. The CDC states that “The total lifetime economic burden resulting from new cases of fatal and nonfatal child abuse and neglect in the United States in 2008 is approximately $124 billion in 2010 dollars”. Investing in early childhood doesn’t just kill two birds with one stone, it’s a bird massacre.
It is important to understand how investing in early childhood not only cures the opioid epidemic, it is a net economic gain. Dr. James Heckman is a Nobel Laureate in economic sciences and has an excellent website explaining this called the Heckman Equation.He has calculated $7-10 return for every dollar invested in early childhood. His research is diagrammed here:
Investing in early childhood is a net gain to our society, socially and economically.
it is tempting to just address the acute problems. But science shows us that investing in the early years can prevent the problem from happening in the first place. That makes it a lot more efficient and less costly.
Think about all of the reactive drug programs out there: expensive rehabilitation programs, anonymous groups, medical treatments etc. While these problems are a great help to many people, they are extremely expensive, and they don’t have the same power as childhood programs could. Instead of train someone to beat addiction, imagine if it were possible to rewire their brain so that the addiction was never present in the first place.
This is the power of early childhood intervention.
Not only is the world population at an all time high, so is the opioid epidemic. 485 people in my sleepy little state of new hampshire alone. If we only treat the symptoms when they are acute, the problem will only get worse. We want a sustainable future, we have no choice but to lay the groundwork now. If we invest in early childhood, we will create a stable society, both socially and economically.