Q&A: On the importance of addressing childhood trauma early and often

There was a period in late January and early February when news of Tyre Nichols and his tragic beating death by the hands of Memphis police officers was ever-present throughout the national media landscape. From cable TV to social media and all points in between and beyond, it seemed like everyone was talking about Tyre and what happened in Memphis. But as has happened time and time again, the national media has shifted its attention from one tragedy to the next and all the while spending less and less attention on Tyre’s case, which is ongoing and just as important as it ever was.

[Related: Read “Taking to the streets and taking care of each other, communities turn out for Tyre Nichols” on High Ground News.]

Regardless of where the country’s attention is focused today or tomorrow, what will always linger in Memphis is the trauma experienced by the community here. Tragedies like Tyre’s death can manifest itself in any number of negative ways, and it can be especially difficult on our young people. There’s a term for the trauma that our children experience: Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs for short. ACEs are traumatic events experienced or witnessed in childhood, like violent crimes or suicide. It’s the type of trauma that can rear its head later in life, and often in negative or harmful ways. As the CDC says about ACEs, “negative experiences in childhood and the teenage years may put children at risk for chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use [...].”

Unfortunately, Charlie A. Caswell Jr. has first-hand experience with Adverse Childhood Experiences, as he’ll tell us in the interview below. But fortunately for Memphis, Caswell has taken the tragedies he experienced as a young person and turned them into learning opportunities. He is continuously advocating for our young people and the importance of their mental health and wellness, a mission that has taken him from Memphis to the White House and back again.

Elected as Shelby County Commissioner for District 6 in 2022, Commissioner Caswell has continued the work he’s done as a community activist and pastor in his Frayser neighborhood and taken it even further. We spoke with Commissioner Caswell about the importance of checking on the well-being of our young people, which not only includes their physical health but their mental health and wellness, too.

High Ground News: Commissioner Caswell, can you introduce us to some of the work you’ve accomplished in advocating for young people and their mental health and well-being?
Shelby County Commissioner Charlie A. Caswell Jr. (Photo: Shelby County TN)
Commissioner Caswell:
A lot of my work is in the Frayser community, and that's a very underserved community. We were getting reports that for 80 percent of Black kids, the first time they will see a doctor is in the emergency room. So in my church, we started a clinic. Pediatricians were coming in and giving our children checkups while we were also providing mental health checkups.

[Related: Read “Collaboration changes the future of Frayser” on High Ground News.]

When the Health & Well-Being committee was formed at More for Memphis, I was one of those advocates that talked about the need for having mental health services in the community, and having them integrated into other services where parents didn't have to go to one place for mental health and social services and another place for pediatrician check-ups. It’s about consulting with residents and stakeholders about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and getting them engaged and coming up with solutions to mitigate Adverse Childhood Experiences in our community.

High Ground: What have you been working on recently?

Commissioner Caswell: Thinking about when I started this work, I was a grassroots organizer in the neighborhood. Now, being in elected office, because of these conversations that we were having, one of the first things I said I was gonna do in my first 100 days was put Shelby County and Memphis in a position where we’re becoming a more trauma-informed and trauma-responsive community. We passed a resolution here on the county side, and my colleagues on the city side joined us on it, that every employee in the county and in the city has to go through an hour-and-a-half training on Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma. And we were able to get it done (in November 2022).

Another part of that resolution is creating an ad hoc committee that would consist of the sheriff's department, the police department, education department, the health department, community services – all coming together to come up with a plan on how to really look at addressing trauma in a different way, in making sure that services are more streamlined and support residents. So we have come a long way in a short time.

High Ground: Why is mental health, and especially among young people, such an important topic for you?

Commissioner Caswell: I grew up in the projects in Memphis at the time of crack cocaine, and witnessed my best friend killed at 14 years old. I witnessed another friend shot in the head at 15 years old. And that trauma led me to where I could have easily ended up in jail or worse, due to what I witnessed as a child. Our young people see stuff like this every day, but they don't have a voice. For years, the only thing I remember after those murders that I witnessed was hearing the teacher say, “Where’s your number two pencil?” And, you know, my friend just got killed. And she said, “Well, I'm not here for that. I'm here for reading, writing, and arithmetic.” That stuck with me. It’s not our children’s fault that their environment is what it is, yet they're being held accountable when they act out.

I feel like we have an opportunity here to shift the focus. One of the elected officials at the time I was doing this work told me that young people are liabilities, and they don't really see them as assets. That really shocked me. Because if we don't invest in young people now, what are they gonna look like in the future? This happened almost 10 years ago and now we're seeing some of these young people creating a lot of havoc, because there were no real investments in them to shift them away from what we knew was going to happen. So I believe we have an opportunity here with More from Memphis, where everybody can bring the data and bring the solutions and we can start to weave them together. I think that we may have something that can shield the next generation here in our city.

High Ground: There’s a lot of smart people and experts on these committees. Can you tell us why it’s important to engage young people directly in health and wellness matters?

Commissioner Caswell: In the midst of the pandemic, there was a group of young people that I trained at one of our local high schools in Frayser on ACEs and trauma, as well as some of the middle school kids. Well, I took them to Nashville. And when (the state politicians) were only talking about COVID, these young people were able to go up there and advocate for House Bill 2588, where if you get divorced in the state of Tennessee, before they sign off on your divorce, the parents have to go to ACEs and trauma training. So I saw the power of our young people in action.

That's where we're focusing even more of our energy now, so young people can tell their own story and we can give them the right tools. We want to bring them to the table so that we can have these real conversations. I know at least three kids who had friends that were looking to commit suicide and because they were trained in ACEs, they understood that it wasn’t something wrong with the person but instead something that happened to them. They were able to ask the right questions, they were able to refer them to get help from some of our clinical partners here. And boy, you know, that’s something that could have been very tragic. That’s why we’re focusing on training and equipping people to be more engaged in ACEs and trauma.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Visit Commissioner Caswell on Facebook, Instagram, and his website to keep up with his work in the community, with Adverse Childhood Experiences, and more.

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