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By Valerie Daniel, MPH, CHES
Health Communication Specialist – Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Originally posted on the Can We Keep It Facebook page.

Valerie DanielI was four when my parents got divorced and only 12 when my dad died by suicide with a gun. I had no idea at that time that these traumatic events, called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), could have had lasting negative effects on my later health, wellbeing, and opportunities.

As a child, I felt isolated by these experiences and felt that no one could relate. But I now know that ACEs are common – a widespread yet largely misunderstood problem in the United States. Some large studies show that 1 in 6 adults have experienced four or more ACEs. ACEs can include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems. ACEs are linked with a range of outcomes – including chronic health problems, mental health conditions, and substance misuse. In fact, at least 5 of the top 10 leading causes of death are associated with ACEs.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that preventing ACEs could reduce a large number of health conditions in adults, including depression, heart disease, and being overweight or obese.

I was lucky as a child to have a very safe, stable, nurturing relationship with my mom. This relationship helped buffer the effects of my parents’ divorce and, later, my father’s death. My mom was a clinical psychologist, and she understood the importance of my talking about my feelings about the divorce and losing my dad, both with her and in therapy. She was also supportive of my participation in activities to release stress, including taking an aerobic boxing class at a neighborhood gym and running on my school’s cross-country team. Mostly, I knew she’d always be there, whatever stressful event occurred in my life, and that we could talk it through.

A person’s experiences shape them and help influence who they become. Losing my dad at an early age definitely made an impact on me and inspired my career in public health. I wanted to shield others from the pain of losing a loved one. I wanted to help remove the stigma associated with mental illness and raise awareness that it is okay to ask for help when you are depressed and that not being happy all the time is normal. I also wanted to understand my dad better and forgive him for thinking that there was no other option than leaving my sisters and myself behind. I hope by sharing my story and through my public health messaging work and developing communication products and campaigns I may be saving a life.

Preventing ACEs

Research shows that positive childhood experiences and relationships, and environments can help reduce risk for ACEs and change the trajectory of ACEs that do occur. My positive relationship was with my mom. Others might get support from a neighbor or a teacher. A sense of belonging – like being a member of a sports team at school or engaging in after-school activities like chess club, drama, or orchestra – might also provide support and relieve stress.

We know that all children and families face challenges. Helping people learn about ACEs can change how they think about the causes of ACEs and shift the focus from individual responsibility to community solutions.

CDC offers Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Leveraging the Best Available Evidence, a resource to help states and communities leverage the best available evidence to prevent ACEs. This resource is designed to help prioritize prevention activities with the greatest potential for impact. Some of these strategies include:

Strengthening economic supports to families to help increase family stability and reduce stress.
Promoting social norms that protect against violence and adversity, such as those that support positive parenting; foster connectedness and healthy relationships.
Reducing stigma around seeking help with parenting challenges or for substance misuse, depression, or suicidal thoughts.
Connecting youth to caring adults through mentoring and after-school programs.

I feel fortunate that I had help overcoming the ACEs in my life. Now through my work in the CDC Division of Violence Prevention as a health communication specialist, I have the chance to help others on a large scale. We know that working together we can prevent many ACEs before they occur and we can lessen the impact of those that do occur. We are aiming for community transformation that will change individual’s lives and improve well-being for generations to come.

For more information about adverse childhood events, ACEs prevention strategies, or ACEs educational resources, please visit