Here’s another reason kids don’t belong in detention: trauma changes growing brains

Julian G. Simmons, University of Melbourne; Meg Dennison, University of Washington, and Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne

A bill that would release the 112 children in immigration detention in Australia will soon go before the House of Representatives. The bill passed the Senate last week, but it could be rejected by a government-majority House.

While it’s widely accepted that detention is bad for child asylum seekers, the long-term effects of that harm are rarely spelled out. Our recently published research sheds some light on this.

So what should members of parliament consider when casting their votes?

Growing brains are vulnerable

The brain has evolved to respond effectively to stressful situations, many of which are normal challenges of everyday life. Indeed, some researchers argue that humans’ extended period of childhood and adolescence (compared to other species) has evolved to maximise our adaptability to the varied environments and social dynamics we traverse. What defines these periods, in this context, is a changing brain, a brain trying to adapt.

This adaptability, however, comes at a cost: growing brains are more vulnerable. Repeated trauma in childhood appears to change children’s enduring hormonal function and brain development, and increases the risk of developing a range of psychological disorders.

Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress” hormone. It plays a complex and wide-ranging role in the human stress and arousal response. Cortisol is also central to glucose availability, blood pressure and immune function.

Alterations in cortisol function are found in people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but are also a risk factor for these disorders. A recent study found soldiers with lower cortisol output before going to war in Afghanistan were more likely to develop PTSD symptoms after traumatic events experienced during their deployment.

Cortisol has traditionally been measured in saliva, blood or urine, reflecting output over minutes or days. These studies have found either unusually high or low levels of cortisol in children who have experienced maltreatment. This defective regulation suggests a system initially pushed into overdrive, and then overwhelmed, becomes fatigued.

But this changing physiological picture, and our constantly varying levels of cortisol, has led to many inconsistent findings.

What did our research find?

Our new research studied the cortisol levels of 70 nine-year-old children living in and around Melbourne. We recorded these levels from scalp hair to determine their total cortisol output over months.

We found that the number and types of traumatic events experienced earlier in childhood correlated with hair cortisol levels. These events included illness and deaths in the family, and being sick or hurt in an accident. More extreme events, such as fires, floods or being threatened or attacked, were relatively uncommon.

Traumatic experiences in childhood alter the development of brain structures during adolescence. These structures include those directly linked to cortisol production, such as the pituitary gland, as well as others linked with emotion processing and memory, such as the amygdala and hippocampus. Alterations in these structures have been identified in mental health disorders.

We have shown that adversity increases the risk of mental health disorders in adolescence. These disorders in turn further alter the way the brain develops.

Childhood adversity, particularly maltreatment, is associated with increased risk for numerous behavioural problems. These include drug use, suicide attempts, risky sexual behaviour and sexually transmitted infections. The earlier the experience of adversity in childhood, the greater the risk of poor mental health outcomes.

What does this mean for detained children?

Clearly there are differences between the environments of our Melbourne families and those of detained children. But these differences are largely matters of degree.

Children in detention are at very high risk of exposure to physical and sexual assault, family separation, environmental deprivation and forced relocation. They also commonly witness traumatic events affecting loved ones. These experiences roughly double their risk of developing mental health problems later in life.

The more traumatic events a child experiences, the more likely lasting problems will emerge. A recent German assessment of families seeking refugee status found that 86.5% had already experienced multiple traumas involving war, torture and involuntary displacement.

Children entering detention in Australia already have elevated rates of psychological problems. The trauma of detention is likely to compound these harmful effects, which may persist long after the resolution of the immigration process.

Childhood is a sensitive and vulnerable period; experiences of trauma and adversity can produce harm that endures into adulthood. This inescapable knowledge should inform policy on the release of children from detention and remind us of the care and support they will need when they are finally released.

The Conversation

Julian G. Simmons, Research Fellow in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, University of Melbourne; Meg Dennison, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Washington, and Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Badaun shows how the police are part of Uttar Pradesh’s unending rape crisis

Originally posted on Quartz:

A 14-year-old girl has alleged that she was abducted and raped in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district on new year’s eve.

The suspected rapists, according to media reports, are two police constables who sexually assaulted the minor at a police station in Badaun.

This incident, once again, underscores the continuing problem of crimes against women in Uttar Pradesh, which has population of about 200 million, comparable to that of Brazil.

But crime data indicate otherwise.

According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, the rate of crimes against women in Uttar Pradesh is mostly lower (and in some cases, significantly so) than the national average. This is in spite of the endless wave of reports and events pointing in the opposite direction.


One explanation for these low crime numbers has been that victims often do not report these crimes—and that the state’s police force is loathe to record them. As a result, the…

View original 168 more words

The Taliban needs to explain how murdering children is a good thing for Islam

Originally posted on Quartz:

Seven armed militants attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar on Tuesday. They jumped a wall, and systematically shot at students – children – in classroom after classroom. The current death toll is at 148, but the numbers continue to rise.

A spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban called in gleefully once the attack had begun. He said it was in response to the military’s continuing operation against militants in North Waziristan. “We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani. “We want them to feel the pain.”

The children’s parents and the military are feeling the pain, so is the nation, and so are other nations, because the assault on people’s collective conscience by the mass murder of children is not confined to institutions or nations.

But no amount of pain caused can mitigate the damage…

View original 475 more words