A Humanitarian Crisis
You’ve recently gone on TV and written several op-eds and blogs about the long-term perils of separating immigrant children from their parents. Why are you speaking out?
Daniel Keating: I have two goals. The first is that, like a huge number of folks throughout the country, I was appalled by our government taking children, even very young children, away from parents who’ve come to the U.S. border requesting asylum. I view it as is a horrific humanitarian crisis that deserves to be spoken out about. It has a high probability of causing substantial long-term psychological and biological harm to completely innocent individuals—children—in order to achieve policy goals. I wanted folks to understand that this isn’t just something these kids will “get over.” That’s not at all the case.
My second goal was to get the message out that, besides this horrific instance, there are lots of things that we do as a society that inflict early-life adversity and stress and trauma on kids. As a nation we have a number of policies that increase our stress, overall as a society, which is leading to a pretty well documented stress epidemic.
Based on your research, what long-term health impacts do you expect to see in these children, and what’s the process by which this happens?
DK: There are two pathways stress or trauma can take to get under the skin and have a long-term impact. One is through neural pathways. The second is through epigenetics.
In the neural pathways, we see changes to the brain that are important in terms of how individual stress systems will function: how anxious or fearful a child is likely to be going forward, whether they interact with other individuals easily or with difficulty, and the kinds of practical learning and thinking challenges they face. Early adversity and high stress and trauma cascade into the body’s systems. Carried over a long period of time, an excess of the stress hormone cortisol—which is part of the stress system function—can affect the cardiovascular and digestive systems and metabolics. It can affect everything, basically. At the population level, high-stress adversity is substantially associated with less longevity and early mortality.
In the case of epigenetics, when there’s extremely high stress, even in the womb or in early life, there can be what’s known as an epigenetic change. In this case the change specifically applies to the stress system. The stress system has a kind of “feedback loop” that tells you when to stand down, when it’s safe to relax. When there’s too much cortisol in the womb, or in the baby or young child, one of the key genes that controls that feedback loop becomes, in a sense, disabled, and the body is unable to shut down the system as it should. That, in turn, causes a cascade of stress as well.
Read the full article at LSA News.