Ballad Health and East Tennessee State University announced a new partnership Friday that will establish an institute to promote the awareness and empirical study of adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs.

The new partnership will create the Strong BRAIN (Building Resilience through ACEs-Informed Networking) Institute to facilitate the development and dissemination of evidence-based practices that prevent, reduce or mitigate the negative effects of ACEs on health, according to a release from Ballad Health.

The institute will also work to provide information to the general public and workforce in the region on the importance of the awareness of trauma and the issues it can cause.

ACEs are considered traumatic experiences, such as abuse, neglect and family dysfunction that can disrupt the safe, stable and nurturing environments that children need to succeed and thrive.

These experiences can have lasting effects on children as they mature into adults, leading to adulthood disease, disability and social impediments. Studies have found the more adverse events a person experiences as a child, the higher the risk of that person having health, social and economic problems, the release stated.

“Some groundbreaking work on the study of ACEs is already being done right here in the Appalachian Highlands, and we hope the creation of this institute will make our region the national hub for future study of the effects of adverse childhood experiences,” Ballad Health Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Alan Levine said.

“From the beginning, Ballad Health leadership has recognized the importance of studying how ACEs shape our children as they grow into adulthood, and one of our primary goals with the Strong BRAIN Institute is to develop effective interventions and techniques to better the health, happiness and wellbeing of our children,” Levine continued.

Established through a five-year gift from Ballad Health to the university, the Strong BRAIN Institute will be guided by an advisory board comprised of experts from ETSU and the health system as well as community members, the release stated.

“We cannot thank Ballad Health enough for once again stepping up to offer this gift that will not only bring additional national recognition to ETSU, but this institute will truly benefit the people of this region, both directly and indirectly,” said Dr. Brian Noland, president of the university.

During Friday’s news conference to announce the new partnership, Noland said Dr. Wally Dixon, who currently serves as chairman of the ETSU Department of Psychology, will serve as the founding director of the Strong BRAIN Institute.

The Strong BRAIN institute will be designed to translate best practices of addressing adverse childhood experiences into community action though local organizations, such as the STRONG Accountable Care Community, Speedway Children’s Charities and the Niswonger Foundation.

“The Strong BRAIN Institute will be vital in helping the more than 250 organizations and agencies who are part of our Accountable Care Community really get to the root of addressing the issues children face in the Appalachian Highlands,” said Travis Staton, president and chief executive officer of United Way Southwest Virginia.

In April 2019, Ballad Health, Speedway Children’s Charities and Niswonger Children’s Hospital launched the STRONG Kids initiative designed to bring more support to regional organizations on the frontlines serving children in need.

Claudia Byrd, executive director of the Bristol chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities, said the formation of the Strong BRAIN Institute will be yet another huge benefit to the children of this region.

“The research that comes out of this institute will be centered around helping children in our region reach their full potential through expanded opportunities in health, education and economic vitality,” Byrd said. “It will help us determine the most efficient ways of aligning resources in order to have the biggest impact on our children.”

“To ensure the future we are striving to achieve, our common goals must include providing our region’s children with the best chance for a successful and meaningful life,” said Dr. Nancy Dishner, president and chief executive officer of the Niswonger Foundation. “Our focus should include ways to support excellent parenting, improving children’s health and wellbeing, supporting quality education, and providing opportunities for meaningful careers. The formation of the Strong BRAIN Institute will be a valuable component of these goals for the future of our region. The Niswonger Foundation thanks Ballad Health and ETSU for these steps in leading the way.”

The Strong BRAIN Institute will be physically located on ETSU’s main campus. In addition to Dixon, the institute staff will include a post-doctoral researcher and a coordinator of research and services.

A 2016 study on adverse childhood experiences in Tennessee found 61% of participants had at least one adverse childhood experience, while 27% of participants reported having three or more ACEs. Emotional abuse, separation/divorce and substance abuse were the most commonly reported ACEs in the Tennessee study.

ACEs also have significant economic costs. In 2017, a study from The Sycamore Institute determined that ACEs among Tennessee adults led to an estimated $5.2 billion in direct medical costs and lost productivity from employees missing work.

Ballad Health has also adopted a population health model through the region’s Accountable Care Community called the Striving Toward Resilience and Opportunity for the Next Generation (STRONG) Children and Families model for change. The STRONG Children and Families model is focused on reducing ACEs and minimizing their negative impacts on individuals by building resilience, supporting families, and creating more safe and nurturing environments for children.

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