Appointment of New Surgeon General Puts Spotlight on Early Childhood Adversity

Nadine Burke Harris with a young patient at the Center for Youth Wellness. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Center for Youth Wellness.

The impact of stress and trauma on people’s physical and mental health looks set to become a central focus of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration in the wake of his appointment of the state’s first surgeon general.

This week, Gov. Newsom tapped Nadine Burke Harris to fill the newly created position. Burke Harris is a physician and pioneering leader in the field of toxic stress and health. She founded the San Francisco-based Center for Youth Wellness, an organization that’s working with pediatric clinics nationwide to develop best practices for screening and treating children at risk for toxic stress. She will be sworn in Feb 11.

The governor’s press office said Burke Harris was currently not available for interviews. However, in a press release from the Center for Youth Wellness, she praised the governor’s commitment to tackling health issues through the lens of childhood adversity.

“Governor Newsom’s vision to address health care from a preventive rather than reactive frame reflects a keen appreciation of the latest science as well as a deep commitment to the health of California children and families,” she said. “I am honored to serve in this capacity and will work hard to support the health of all Californians.”

Researchers and health experts increasingly understand that trauma in childhood, such as abuse, exposure to violence, or having a parent with a mental illness, can wreck havoc on children’s brains and bodies as they grow, including their hormone and immune systems. This can lead to immediate health problems, ranging from behavioral difficulties to severe asthma, and also heightens children’s risk for chronic illnesses later in life such as heart disease and diabetes.

Gov. Newsom’s office said Burke Harris’ role will be to focus on ways to combat these root causes of serious health conditions, and to urge policymakers and leaders across the state to consider how adverse childhood experiences affect people’s health.

Ted Lempert, president of the children’s advocacy organization Children Now, praised Burke Harris’ appointment, saying it shows the governor is serious about making kids’ health a priority. Addressing trauma early in life helps children be more successful in the long run and ultimately reduces health care costs, he said.

“(Burke Harris) is a true national leader on kids’ health and especially the whole area of trauma. Having her in this new position at the state level is really fantastic news for kids,” he said. She’s part of an extraordinary team the governor’s putting together that first and foremost is putting children at the top of the agenda.”

James Hickman, who is taking over for Burke Harris as the Center for Youth Wellness’ Chief Executive Officer, called the appointment “incredible.”

“It says a lot about the ambition and boldness of this next generation of California leaders,” he said. “You’re seeing a governor who is making a stand against poverty and what it does, particularly to the most vulnerable in our society, and that’s children.”

Hickman predicted Burke Harris’ work as surgeon general will have ripple effects beyond the state’s boundaries.

“I think she’s going to help not only Californians, but really I think take the national movement she’s helped build and really help us all think: how do you transfer that movement into a field?,” he said. “This is a unique opportunity for California to lead the way when it comes to addressing the risks of toxic stress and children who are facing adverse childhood events, not just for themselves but for multigenerational families that are struggling with it every day.”

 

 

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