Universities can play an important role in opening up difficult conversations, connecting personal stories and academic insights. The two blog posts below come out of a sustained conversation between Juleus Ghunta, a Jamaican Chevening scholar who used his MA dissertation to deepen his understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on his life, and Dr Ute Kelly, a lecturer in Peace Studies who supervised his dissertation.
Taken together, these two pieces ask some important questions: How can academic research help people whose lives have been affected by ACEs to make sense of their life stories? How does an awareness of ACEs enhance our understanding of the links between personal experiences, social problems and the legacies of violent histories? And how might Universities create a culture in which students with adverse childhood and other traumatic experiences are supported both in their studies and in their personal efforts towards healing?
I was living in Yonago, Japan, when I received news that I had been awarded a Chevening Scholarship. Several weeks before, I had travelled to Jamaica for the scholarship interview. One of the interviewers asked me what I planned to contribute to Jamaica after completing my studies. I told him that I was not going to Bradford for Jamaica but for myself. It was a risky but truthful response.
Before I moved to Japan in 2014, I had spent several years in the Eastern Caribbean, and later, in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, trying desperately to understand the sources of my recurrent illnesses, which included nightmares, depression, motor inhibition, dizziness and blackouts. By then I had expended all of my resources on medical bills and had been misdiagnosed with several illnesses including Meniere’s disease and epilepsy. Despite repeatedly sharing stories about my traumatic childhood with physicians, there was no mention of a possible connection between my past and present state.
In 2016 I read Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score. For the first time I began to connect the dots between my traumatic childhood and my mental and physical health challenges. From Kolk’s work, I learned about the Centre for Disease Centre and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente’s pioneering study on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs refer to traumatic experiences (poverty, physical/emotional, sexual abuse, physical neglect, community violence, bullying etc.) that many children go through. These experiences continue to have negative effects even into adulthood. ACEs are gateways to suicide ideation, drug addiction, alcoholism, violence, and other harmful behaviours. A person’s ACE score is a tally of each adversity. The original ACE study listed 10 types of childhood adversities and subsequent studies have argued for the widening of the original scale.
I have more than 15 ACEs. Someone with 4 or more ACEs is many times more likely to suffer from illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, chronic depression, faulty memory and struggle to learn than those with no ACE. On average, people with 6 or more ACEs die 20 years earlier than those without. Given the profound impact of ACEs on my health, I decided to commit my year in Bradford to exploring—within the context of my lived experiences—what is being discovered in ACE research. In my dissertation I wrote about the extreme poverty and abuse I endured as a child, about why I was subliterate up to age 12, and about being forced by my family to live on my own from age 14–17.
I analysed my traumatic childhood against a backdrop of tangled cultural narratives and histories. This helped me to confront and clarify many harrowing memories. Having found refuge in expressive writing, I wrote as much as I could and was delighted when CaribbeanReads published my picture book, Tata and the Big Bad Bull, in May 2018. The bull and other characters in Tata are both realistic and metaphorical representations of some of the challenges I faced and the steps I took to endure and overcome them.
My decision to study myself at Bradford was the right one. Now that my health has improved I’m ready to do more. With CaribbeanReads, I’m currently finalising the manuscript for Rohan Bullkin Learns to Read, a picture book for professionals who work with child victims of ACEs. I’m working to raise awareness of ACEs in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Child abuse is the most common form of violence in the region and its consequences are far-reaching.
I hope to inspire others to be courageous in their efforts to unpack the deepest and scariest aspects of our lives. At one level, this process is about self–analysis. It’s also about what novelist George Lamming calls the education of feeling, about the need for us to interrogate and reshape our cultural myths and conventions so that critical untold stories can finally be told, so that people who have long been invisibilised can finally be seen.
This post was originally published on the Chevening Alumni Blog.
Juleus Ghunta is a 2017/18 Chevening scholar from Jamaica. He earned an MA in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, where he was awarded the Social Ambassador Prize for outstanding contribution to the Division of Peace Studies and International Development.
Sometimes, we learn as much from students as they do from us. Among the things I enjoy most about working in a University setting are the opportunities it can offer for meaningful conversations that prompt us to ask different questions, see new connections between diverse themes and experiences, and explore the implications for our thinking and practices. I have had several overlapping conversations of this kind over the past year or so. The most sustained of these has been with Juleus Ghunta, a Jamaican Chevening scholar who, as he describes in his blog post, came to Bradford to deepen his understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on his life.
As Juleus describes in his account, coming across studies that link ACEs to a range of physical and mental health conditions helped him make sense of many of the challenges he has experienced. It has also helped other students with ACEs who have listened to Juleus talk about his dissertation, and/or read some extracts from it. Getting a sense of these links and their significance has connected some important dots for me too – between the different forms and experiences of violence we look at in peace and conflict studies, between individual, interpersonal and structural approaches to healing and conflict transformation, between what we do at the University and the life experiences our students bring to their studies.
The questions this has raised for me about how Universities might support students who come with ACEs and/or other traumatic experiences have resonated in conversations with several other students. These have been students who have felt drawn to studying issues of peace, conflict, reconciliation or justice partly because those themes connect with their lived experiences. And at the same time, these students’ lived experiences of adverse childhood experiences and/or other forms of trauma make studying more challenging. As established in research on ACEs, people who have gone through these experiences are much more likely to be affected by a wide range of physical illnesses and mental health problems. This in itself, of course, makes it difficult to focus on studying and to do your best work. Students with traumatic backgrounds have also told me that they are facing anxieties that can feel paralysing, that they find it difficult to focus on reading and writing, that producing their assignments takes them much longer than many of their peers. Sometimes, these students do very well nevertheless; sometimes, we don’t have a sense of the struggles, the time and energy that goes into their work. Sometimes, such students are failed by a system that doesn’t recognise the challenges they face or manage to provide the right kinds of support. Sometimes, they hold themselves responsible for struggling or needing support; sometimes, they feel they are being a burden.
Engaging in one-to-one conversations and building relationships of trust and care can be very helpful in this context. Human connections are a significant dimension of what is needed to enable movements towards healing. At the same time, focusing on the individual level misses so much that we need to look at: The ways in which trauma is often intergenerational and related to long histories of oppression and systemic injustices. Challenging questions around responsibilities past and present. ‘The need’, as Juleus has put it, ‘for us to interrogate and reshape our cultural myths and conventions so that critical untold stories can finally be told, so that people who have long been invisibilised can finally be seen’. And, for those of us in Universities, the question of what we might do with this understanding – not least in order to develop systems and structures that value and make space and time for human connections.
At one level, the questions raised by all this are generic ones about how educational settings might become better at supporting students who are facing these challenges. It is good to see emerging work and good practice around the idea of ‘Trauma-Informed Universities’. The set of principles that have been identified as key to a trauma-informed approach include safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support and mutual self-help, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment, voice and choice, and a recognition of cultural, historical and gender issues. While these are clearly important to all organisations that work with people, they have a particular resonance in fields of study that are directly concerned with conflict, violence and structural injustice: How do we engage with these issues in ways that are supportive of students with lived experiences of different forms of violence and injustice, who may have felt unheard and unseen for much of their lives, who may still be experiencing the anxiety, shame, anger or fear that can come from these experiences? How do we take account of the diverse needs of all of our students in this, of the fact that the same topic or process can be experienced in very different ways, that a learning experience can be healing for some and retraumatising for others? How do we, personally and collectively, learn from our own lived experiences and from those of others? How might we begin to transform the assumptions, behaviours, cultures and structures that continue to cause traumatic experiences for some while keeping others safe? How do we conceptualise and experience the links between the professional, the personal and the political in relation to questions of care and justice?
Juleus and I are still talking about these kinds of questions. Among other things, and with others who believe these questions are important (including OpenEdge Transforming Conflict), we have been involved in designing an ‘Otherness Lab’ that will give students and staff an opportunity to open up and explore some of the difficult questions about voice, silencing, performances and the ways in which they are affected by complex dynamics of power and privilege. As well as personal learning for participants, this will hopefully generate some critical questions and ideas that we will feed back to the University in an attempt to support wider efforts towards institutional change.
This post was written in response to Juleus's post for the Chevening Alumni blog and first published on Ute's personal blog.
Dr Ute Kelly is a lecturer in Peace Studies and based in the Division of Peace Studies and International Development.