Toxic Stress Crisis Poised to Take Center Stage on National Health Agenda

Toxic stress leader tapped for historic post in Newsom administration as national advocacy group ramps up for aggressive screening effort

San Francisco, CA — The toxic health crisis, one of the most underreported and serious health conditions in the United States affecting as many as 35 million children, is moving under a giant spotlight this week, with historic new leadership on the issue and ambitious new advocacy efforts.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s appointment today of toxic stress leader Dr. Nadine Burke Harris as the state’s first surgeon general is a ground-breaking step and an important validation of the need for greater awareness of toxic stress. Burke Harris is the founder of the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW) and has been its CEO for the last six years and is the author of “The Deepest Well,” a landmark book about toxic stress. CYW is the nation’s leading toxic stress organization, with a robust advocacy and education arm and a network of pediatric clinics that screen children for risk of toxic stress.

With Dr. Burke Harris’ appointment, the CYW Board has named longtime Bay Area community healthcare leader, James H. Hickman, as interim CEO. Hickman is taking the reins immediately and working with the CYW team to seize on groundbreaking initiatives from the Newsom administration and the California state legislature, including new toxic stress screening legislation.

Toxic stress can happen when children experience serious trauma — like abuse, domestic violence or a parental mental illness — it can impact children’s growing brains and bodies including their immune and hormonal systems and can put them on a lifelong path toward chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.

“We couldn’t be more proud of Nadine’s appointment as Surgeon General of California. Without her vision of establishing CYW in the first place, the necessary spotlight to direct resources to educating parents, caretakers and physicians on the importance of trauma and the dangers of toxic stress in children may never have occurred,” said Mary Pang, board chair of CYW. “Nadine now takes the power of her voice and vision to Sacramento, working alongside policymakers to effect change and creating a healthier California for all of us.”

“Governor Newsom’s vision to address healthcare from a preventive, rather than reactive, frame reflects a keen appreciation of the latest science as well as a deep commitment to the health of California children and families,” said Dr. Burke Harris. “I am honored to serve in this capacity and will work hard to support the health of all Californians.”

With Governor Newsom and Sacramento putting an even greater emphasis on toxic stress, the work of CYW will be amplified and its advocacy efforts fortified. Hickman has over twenty-five years of experience in senior level positions in the nonprofit, government and private sector. In these roles, he galvanized system change as a social impact practitioner to help create, fund, and promote mission-aligned innovators for the common good. His policy portfolio notably includes serving on the National Advisory Committee for the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers’ National Center for Complex Health and Social Needs.

“This isn’t so much an organizational transition as it is an acceleration of our work to raise awareness about toxic stress so that more parents get their kids screened and treated,” said Hickman. “We are hard at work to build on the incredible accomplishments of Dr. Burke Harris and look forward to watching her achieve incredible things as our state’s first surgeon general.”