Cultivating Conversations for Autonomy
Over three decades ago, the month of April was established as National Child Abuse Prevention Month in the United States. Many other countries, including the United Kingdom, followed suit by also adopting the campaign. The month-long campaign aims to raise awareness, support families, and focuses on improving the well-being of children in order to prevent child abuse.
By definition, child abuse is engaging in an act, or neglecting to do something, that ultimately results in harm to a child or puts a child at risk of harm. Child abuse can take shape in various forms, whether it be emotional, physical or sexual. Children who are victims of abuse can: become withdrawn, develop depression, have thoughts of suicide, try or abuse drugs and alcohol, engage in violent habits or project abuse onto others.
However, the emotional damage that victims of child abuse endure is of paramount significance compared to the physical damage. Child abuse is no case of the age-old rhyme, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” Physical wounds can heal, but emotional damage can follow one from childhood to adulthood.
The first step to healing is recognizing symptoms of mental health disorders in children. However, it can be difficult or nearly impossible for children to speak up about abuse because they either typically know their abuser, the abuse happens at home, or there is fear of the power the abusers have over them. Therefore, you can start by finding a mental health professional for children whose mental health worsens with symptoms lasting more than a few weeks. If you need help directing the conversation with a doctor after a diagnosis, such as depression, Jumo Health provides a depression discussion guide, amongst other mental health resources.
Moreover, it’s important to consider if the inability to discuss and process abuse as a child can rob one of their autonomy in regards to their health as an adult? In the realm of healthcare, autonomy is described as the right of competent adults to make informed decisions about their own medical care. In turn, a person of diminished autonomy is incapable of making informed decisions about their own medical care. The significance is that child abuse can hinder the ability to make autonomous decisions later in life.
Dr. Melissa Jonson-Reid, a professor of social work research, notes that, “Stopping abuse early can go a long way to improving a child’s quality of life and reducing the risk for future poor decisions.” By understanding the effect of child abuse on mental health later in life, intervention programs and treatment options can provide support to improve future decisions.
Continue to play an active role in the fight against childhood abuse and help shape our children into autonomous and well-educated adults by taking advantage of resources available for both victims and their families. Child Welfare Information Gateway connects child welfare and related professionals to comprehensive information and resources to help protect children and strengthen families. They offer a prevention resource guide with tip sheets for preventing child sexual abuse and helping children heal from trauma – just to name a few. Awareness and education about abuse and mental health are two key insights that can bring about change in order to protect our children and nurture them into healthy adults.