ACEs: Light bulb moment or magic bullet for social ills? (


This article contributes a Scotland perspective of controversies around ACEs. EPerry


Author Chris Marshall

In the mid-1980s, doctors running a weight loss programme at a clinic in San Diego happened upon a startling discovery. Struggling to understand why successful slimmers were quitting, lead physician Dr Vincent Felitti began interviewing the leavers and found many had experienced sexual abuse in childhood.

His findings led to a conclusion that would have major implications for public health – overeating was being used unconsciously as a protection from trauma suffered early in life. Contrary to all the medical evidence, it seemed obesity did provide benefits for some; it helped people deal with physical, sexual or emotional experiences they had undergone as children.

It was out of Felitti’s research that the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study was born. Between 1995 and 1997, 17,000 Californians were surveyed on their physical health alongside questions about their childhoods. The study found that as the number of ACEs increased, so did the incidence of depression, alcoholism, promiscuity and suicide attempts in later life.

A bold interpretation of the results was that trauma endured during childhood was the main determinant for the health and wellbeing of adults. More than 20 years on from that landmark study, the concept of ACEs has moved centre stage.

The idea has been enthusiastically adopted by the Scottish Government, teachers, psychologists and even Police Scotland.

Supporters speak of making Scotland the world’s first “ACE-aware” nation, believing negative childhood experiences can help explain everything from smoking to criminality.

But while few deny that childhood trauma can have a profound and long-lasting impact, there is growing controversy over the adoption of the ACEs agenda, which some experts argue fails to take account of socio-economic conditions and can unfairly stigmatise children.

It is claimed that ACEs have been seized upon as a “magic bullet” in an era when teachers, social workers and police officers have been left bereft by the impact of austerity, desperately reaching for something, anything, to help tackle deep-seated social problems.

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Wouldn't be the first time a socio-cultural theory was used with very little understanding to further oppress oppressed people. Case in point, "Broken windows" theory that the quality of the physical environment plays a part in how people act. It was used as an excuse to harass and arrest minorities and let them sit in jail for months or years awaiting trial because they couldn't afford bail. Either that or plead guilty to something they are not guilty of in trade for short sentences (and a life of difficulty finding employment when released).