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ACEs Champion: Carolyn Curtis brings ACEs healing to community networks through the ‘Mind Matters’ program


“Mind Matters: Overcoming Adversity and Building Resilience” builds on Carolyn Curtis’s lifetime experience. It is as if she had been predestined to teach people to overcome the adverse experiences in their lives.

Like many of us, Curtis grew up in an alcoholic home. This gives her a deep understanding of the damage that comes from early childhood trauma – and a passion for helping others overcome it.

Her experience eventually led her to become a marriage and family counselor. After 30 years, she closed her private practice. Curtis wanted to do something that would have a greater impact.

When she heard that the federal Administration for Children and Families was going to award grants to organizations that supported healthy relationships and marriages, she decided this was her chance to make a difference. In 2003, she founded the nonprofit Relationships Skill Center in Sacramento.

Time to follow her passion

Then, a major life change occurred: In 2014, Curtis was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a serious form of cancer. When given her diagnosis and made aware of how debilitating the treatment would be, she knew it was time to leave her organization and follow her passion by writing an evidence-based trauma healing program.

After three years of testing and fine-tuning, “Mind Matters was published in 2017 by the Dibble Institute. Since then, it has been used with thousands of people across the country.

“This curriculum can be used with people of all ages – including teens, youth, and adults – in schools, community-based organizations, the justice system, foster care, shelters, and group homes,” says ACEs Connection founder and publisher Jane Stevens.

The curriculum draws from Curtis’s solid grounding in understanding human behavior. She earned a master’s in counseling from California State University, Sacramento, and a doctorate in psychology from the Professional School of Psychology in Sacramento. For years she was an adjunct professor at Sacramento State and American River College, teaching introductory psychology as well as courses focused on sex, aging, stress, and child development.

In her private practice, Curtis specialized in couples, trauma, and alcohol abuse. When she founded the Relationships Skill Center, her goal was to teach couples the skills needed to build a healthy relationship.

Before Curtis began the Relationship Skills Center, she had learned about the ACE Study. Her response? “Oh, this is what we should be doing. The reason people don’t have healthy relationships is because they’ve been traumatized.”

The landmark CDC/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study of more than 17,000 adults, first published in 1998, linked 10 types of childhood trauma to the adult onset of chronic diseases, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.

The study found that ACEs are remarkably common — most people have at least one. People who have four or more different types of ACEs — about 12 percent of the general population, but more in communities in people of color and/or white people where policies keep them impoverished — have a 1,200 percent higher risk of attempting suicide and a 700 percent higher risk of becoming an alcoholic, compared with people who have no ACEs. Many other types of ACEs —including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence — have been added to subsequent ACE surveys. (ACEs Science 101; Got Your ACE/Resilience Score?)

The epidemiology of childhood adversity is one of five parts of ACEs science. The other parts include how toxic stress from ACEs affects children’s brains, the short- and long-term health effects of toxic stress, how toxic stress is passed on from generation to generation, and research on resilience, which includes how individuals, organizations, systems and communities can integrate ACEs science to solve our most intractable problems.

The root cause is often trauma

Curtis had always sensed that we were not reaching the root cause of the problems in relationships.

“When I started the organization, I thought giving people relationship skills would be sufficient for building healthy families. We were successful in many cases, but not as successful as I had imagined,” she says. The ACEs study “reminded me that we needed to deal with the underlying trauma in the lives of couples we served to create the desired change.”

Curtis knew that organizations needed a curriculum that was easy to teach and implement. And individuals needed a curriculum designed to meet their needs. As a result, “Mind Matters” is available in several formats. Facilitators can purchase the curriculum in 12 one-hour segments or in 21 15-to-20-minute segments.

Or, adults can take “Mind Matters Now,” which offers the entire class taught by Curtis online and on-demand. Continuing Education Units are available. “Mind Matters Minutes” are short, recorded, self-regulation practices for adults to use with young people.

“My vision,” says the relationship counselor, “was to get this information for resilience available to as many people as possible in a cost-effective way.”

Enthusiastic response

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Curtis and Dibble’s senior trainer, Dixie Zittlow, led an online “Mind Matters” class over 12 weeks for no cost. Attendance ranged from 450 to 1,000 people each week. When posted to YouTube, the course drew over 9,200 views.

Remarkably, says Curtis, “People came to the first class and stayed the whole session: an hour and five minutes for each class.” People stayed with the entire 12-week course because of the engaging activities and the skills they were learning, she says.

One participant said, “I really appreciate being a part of this series. It was super relevant for work and home, very special and heart-warming and inspired new vision, growth. Thank you from my heart.”

The Dibble Institute website describes the course as offering practical, hands-on lessons exploring the effects of adversity and toxic stress along with the healing process. The program is intended “to be facilitated by paraprofessionals to inspire, uplift, and set people on the journey of healing as they cultivate deeper resilience,” the site says. Here’s a full description.

“Mind Matters” is based on ACEs science. Participants take their ACEs score anonymously and do not include a personal trauma narrative, which could retrigger old traumas. Instead, the curriculum offers research-based strategies for developing resilience.

Three universities are now following up with a study on the effectiveness of the “Mind Matters” curriculum with the participants. So far, Curtis reports, the results are positive.

She practices what she teaches

Curtis’s work has been recognized as exemplary. She received the Presidential Point of Light Award from former President Barack Obama and spoke at the White House at the invitation of former President George W. Bush.

Curtis has survived several intensive bouts of chemotherapy, including an exhausting stem cell transplant. She now is on a third infusion of chemo and immunotherapy regimen. Yet, she continues her ballet classes and is in fine spirits. And she uses the skills she teaches in her own life.

For example, Curtis met her husband, who is also a therapist, in a workshop on couples’ therapy. “We started the workshop by talking about where everyone was in relationships. I said that I was not in a relationship and was not interested in getting into one. My future husband said the same thing,” she recalls.

“But we found out how much we loved and liked each other,” she says with joy in her voice -- and they have been together ever since.

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