A lifeline for traumatized children

Dr. Vicki Nejtek’s research helps improve
programs aimed at helping children exposed
to violence, crime, abuse or psychological trauma.

“I’m 9 years old and I live in a shelter,” says a girl named Victoria. “I don’t tell kids at school where I live because they laugh at me.”

But Victoria says she also attends a group at school called Rainbow Days, learning “how to make healthy choices. I’ve learned that I’m not alone and I have friends.”

Far from being alone, Victoria is among the 60 percent of U.S. children exposed to violence, crime, abuse or psychological trauma. Through programs such as Rainbow Days, known as curriculum-based support groups (CBSGs), caring adults throw a lifeline to at-risk children like Victoria.

A vital part of the Rainbow Days team is Vicki A. Nejtek, PhD, Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Director of Co-Occurring Disorders Research and Education at UNT Health Science Center.

Using results from Rainbow Days and the Recovery Resource Council (RRC), Dr. Nejtek recommends improvements in the CBSG program and in the training of people who work with the children.

Every year, 3,300 North Texas children are served by the CBSG program developed and delivered by Rainbow Days in Dallas and delivered by the RRC in Fort Worth.

CBSGs are designed to help young people avoid behavior problems ranging from angry outbursts to law-breaking and substance abuse; and mental health/medical issues such as depression and eating disorders. These problems often stem from physical/sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, living with a substance abuser, divorce, marital discord or homelessness. Chronic harmful experiences interrupt the neural connectivity or “wiring” in children’s brains. They may become unable to cope or to make appropriate decisions.

See the “Victoria” video

“We need to figure out how to change the fact that a lot of the health care money we spend in this country is to treat chronic medical conditions rooted in childhood trauma,” said Rainbow Days Special Projects Director Karen Williams.

“My passion is to provide the clearest interpretation of the data, finding gaps in our knowledge and helping move positive interventions forward,” Dr. Nejtek said.

Rainbow Days gives children 10 weeks’ guidance in constructive behaviors and attitudes, using positive messages to reinforce a healthy emotional life. With CBSG, young people can learn to overcome their early adverse experiences, succeed in school and social settings, and later become productive citizens.

“Sometimes it takes so little to make a huge difference in a child’s life,” Dr. Nejtek said. “The positive influence from an adult who cares enough to listen, teach, mentor and spend quality time with them, even for just one hour a week, helps tremendously.”

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