A mental health advocate born to a teenage mom with a heroin addiction spoke to students Wednesday about mental health and how adult role models can approach traumatized children in a better way.

Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz was born to a young, impoverished single mother struggling with a heroin addiction. By the time she was just 5 years old, Lewis-Pankratz had witnessed drug use and domestic violence. As a middle schooler, she began struggling socially and academically, often lashing out at teachers and getting into fights. According to Lewis-Pankratz, her delinquency was a cry for help — one that neither her teachers nor her own parents were equipped to answer.

“(I wanted to say), ‘I’m scared, I’m ashamed, I’m alone and I need you,’” she said. “But my behavior didn’t exhibit any of that.”

After dropping out of high school at the age of 16, Lewis-Pankratz continued to struggle against the poverty and drug addiction that would haunt her for another two decades. Living paycheck to paycheck while raising three kids as a single mother, she tried and failed to earn a college degree several times.

It wasn’t until her late 30s that her life began to take a turn. After getting involved with a “poverty project” at her local ministry, which aimed to provide a supportive infrastructure for disadvantaged community members, Lewis-Pankratz began to feel acknowledged, cared for and empowered to a degree she had never before experienced. She credits that project with providing the social support and guidance she needed to finish college in her late 30s and triumph over her lifelong poverty.

“People always say, ‘The reason you overcame poverty is because you had grit and determination,’” she said. “But that’s not entirely true — what I really needed and what really made a difference was the support and love that I received from my (community).”

Lewis-Pankratz understands that her story is not typical — according to a Pew Charitable Trust study, only 30 percent of people born into poverty will ever earn enough to reach a middle-class status. As a result, she has devoted much of her career to changing outcomes for impoverished and traumatized children. Since 2012, much of her work has focused on collaborating with teachers and policy-makers to redesign public education systems to become more “trauma-informed.”

The event, part of Purdue's annual Mental Health Symposium, was hosted by the National Alliance for Mental Illness. It centered around childhood toxic stress and trauma, a topic NAMI president Selena Amador believes is relevant to adolescents and young adults in college.

According to Lewis-Pankratz, poverty and trauma among school-aged children are the most important factors to consider when redesigning educational and disciplinary infrastructures. Research indicates that most educators are ill-equipped to effectively deal with students who suffer from trauma-induced toxic stress, a term describing the chronic state of feeling overwhelmed, powerless and isolated. Although toxic stress can affect anyone, virtually all children in poverty are victims of it, Lewis-Pankratz said.

Delinquent behavior among students is often perceived as being entirely driven by choice. However, the toxic stress often accompanying delinquency disarms the brain’s ability to rationally process emotions and events. For this reason, Lewis-Pankratz believes that “cause-and-effect” based punishment in schools is ineffective for the students who typically need to be disciplined the most.

Instead, she suggests training the adults important in children’s lives to become more aware, sensitive and responsive to trauma. She encourages schools to act constructively by providing more resources for emotional support and recognizing bad behavior for what it is — a maladaptive veil for fear and hurt — instead of imposing harsh punishments that don’t address the root cause of behavior.

Lewis-Pankratz’s perspective is supported by research from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, which points to stable, loving adult relationships as playing a key role in helping to undo the damage of toxic stress in children.

Researchers there have developed the concept of “serve and return” interactions, where caregivers are encouraged to consistently provide positive feedback to children’s actions. When an infant cries or makes a gesture, the caregiver can acknowledge the behavior through verbal affirmation or physical contact. Doing so will strengthen the neural connections in the child’s brain associated with the development of social skills and healthy attachment styles.

“A brain wired from toxic stress can heal and wants to heal, and it does that through support and relationships with other people,” Lewis-Pankratz said. “Behavior is a brain issue more than a character issue.”

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