The ACE Score Helps Us Understand Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

The ACE Score Helps Us Understand Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

Jamestown, NY – It is so easy to pass judgment on people afflicted with mental health and substance use disorders.

“And yet,” asks Kia Briggs, Executive Director of the Mental Health Association in Chautauqua County (MHA), “do we expect a person with a bleeding arm to ‘get over it’ or deny life-saving treatment to a diabetic or cancer patient?”

Briggs finds that being aware of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, can help with understanding how early trauma can impact a person’s ability to thrive as an adult.

ACEs are stressful or traumatic experiences of childhood, including physical or verbal abuse, neglect, and a range of environmental or relational factors. These factors could be growing up in a home with substance misuse, mental illness, parental discord or crime, witnessing domestic violence, or the absence of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment.

These childhood stressors can injure the developing brain, impairing the brain’s physical development and function. ACEs can cause kids to have difficulties learning, making friends, and trusting adults or authority figures. They can have a long-term impact on mental and physical health issues and social problems.

As adults, these experiences do not go away. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found a stunning link between multiple stressful events in childhood and chronic diseases like asthma, heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as social, emotional and behavioral problems that can include substance use disorders, isolation, incarceration, lack of employment, depression, violence, personal encounters of a violent act, and suicide.

An ACE score is a tally of these different characteristics of a rough childhood. The ACE Study found that the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for later health problems. (Worth noting is that the study’s participants were 17,000 mostly white, middle and upper-middle class college-educated individuals with good jobs and great health care.)

While there are children who experience multiple negative occurrences and still develop the skills necessary to successfully transition into adulthood, a high ACE score reduces that likelihood.

Briggs believes that an understanding of the significance of ACEs can improve access to local treatment and services and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and substance use disorders. 

Instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?,” people in helping situations who use the evidence from ACEs studies will practice trauma-informed language like “What happened to you?”

When a person discloses the traumatic events in their childhood, it can humanize them: they can be seen as someone who wants to become healthy instead of someone whose situation is hopeless. The long-term impact of treatment and support can help break the cycle of ACEs in families. 

You can learn more about ACEs at and To find your ACE Score, google “NPR Ace Quiz.”

Information about ACEs was in the MHA’s most recent newsletter. The newsletter can be read in its entirety on the MHA website by clicking on “Read Our Newsletter” at

The Mental Health Association is located at 31 Water Street, Door 14, in the rear of the Gateway Center.

The MHA works in collaboration with local treatment providers, other non-profits, community-based partners, and treatment courts to empower adult individuals in attaining self-identified goals. In an accepting environment, it provides recovery coaching by certified peer specialists as well as support groups and classes while also celebrating recovery milestones.

There is currently no charge for any of the MHA’s services or programs.

Anyone with questions or in need of services for themselves or a family member is welcome to call or stop in. Hours are Monday-Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

To learn more about the MHA, call (716) 661-9044 or visit  or

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