Two out of three American adults experienced trauma as a child. Those are the numbers. Embedded in those raw statistics are countless stories. Master’s-degree leadership student Victoria Conlu set out to learn the stories of some of the people whose lives are embedded in that statistic, in the hope of determining if and when intervention might improve poor outcomes in the long run.

The result is her thesis for the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis and her new perspective on the children and families she serves every day as a public health nurse in Yolo County.

Mining data to uncover stories, improve outcomesVictoria Conlu, a public health nurse in Yolo County, examined data to paint the full picture of children who suffer trauma.

"The prevailing story of childhood trauma has a beginning, middle and end, but all the data collected represents only a snapshot of that child at a certain time,” Conlu explained. “I wanted to get the complete narrative to determine where health care professionals might intervene to change the all-too-often unhappy ending.”

For her study, “Childhood Trauma and Mental Health Care Access,” Conlu conducted a data analysis of the 2011–2012 National Survey of Children’s Health. She developed her own coding to query the data and reviewed more than 85,000 responses from children ages 2 to 18. She wanted to determine what factors had the strongest link to trauma victims and mental health care access.

“These numbers are more than bar charts, flow charts, graphs and tables. Data holds the power to tell a story. A story is the only way to make the information accessible for the greatest number of people,” Conlu said.

"Victoria is an exemplary student: hard working, intellectually curious, and deeply committed to research that can improve mental health services for children and youth,” said Janice Bell, associate professor. “Her work, which identifies predictors of unmet mental health needs in a national sample of children, helps to identify specific groups at risk for mental health disparities who might benefit from targeted clinical and health policy intervention. Victoria has a bright future as a nurse researcher and leader, and I look forward to following it."

Conlu concluded that black, non-Hispanic children are one-and-a-half times more likely than white children to have unmet mental health needs and lower odds of utilizing services. Furthermore, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, among whom the prevalence of trauma history is 20 percent higher than in the general population, have 87 times greater odds of receiving psychotropic medication without access to a mental health specialist.

Though Conlu graduates in June, her work in this area just began. She set her sights on exploring the impact of national health care legislation on mental health through future surveys. A journalist at heart, she hopes to continue weaving narratives out of data to further develop her skills as a nurse and improve outcomes of the families she serves. “When you look at high-risk populations in crisis situations, the easiest route to take is a glimpse of what’s happening to the child at that moment, Conlu said. “Now that I’ve done this research, I can’t get these stories out of my head. When I look at my patients now, I am looking past the snapshot, making those conversations full and meaningful.”