Over the course of her career, Ellen Schmidt has seen a shift in how people think about childhood safety and injury and violence prevention. “We didn’t have bicycle helmets, seat belts, car seats, conflict resolution, or bullying prevention growing up,” she says. “Now many people see injury and violence prevention and protection as a way of life.”
Schmidt is senior project director at EDC and an assistant director of the Children’s Safety Network (CSN) National Resource Center for Injury and Violence Prevention. CSN works with state, territorial, and community Maternal & Child Health and Injury & Violence prevention programs to create safe, healthy environments for children, youth, and families.
Schmidt has witnessed positive environmental and behavioral changes, such as the widespread use of smoke detectors and seatbelts. Policymakers and practitioners, she says, have a greater understanding that “injury and violence prevention can be treated with a public health approach, which protects and improves the health of communities through preventive medicine, health education, and safety regulations.”
Prior to joining EDC in 1997, Schmidt worked for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH).
How did you move from working as an occupational therapist to violence and injury prevention?
Occupational therapy (OT) helps people learn the skills to live as independently as possible, whether that person is a car crash survivor recovering from a head injury or an elderly person learning how to use a wheelchair.
I practiced OT in a variety of settings—hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and finally with the DHMH. It was there that I was offered an opportunity to look at ways to prevent falls and reduce hip fractures among the elderly. That’s when I had an “aha!” moment: I could work to prevent the injuries I had been treating. I remained at the DHMH for 10 years, during which time I created the first comprehensive injury prevention and control program. I was also a founding member and president of the State and Territorial Injury Prevention Directors Association, which is now the Safe States Alliance.
While working at the state level, where did you feel you had the most impact?
Public health has made huge gains in defeating childhood diseases with immunizations. But the data now show that injuries are the leading cause of death among people under age 44. The number one cause of death of young children is car crashes. This data made child passenger safety in cars a priority. The DHMH also took action to reduce injuries from bicycle crashes by supporting the passage of a helmet law in Maryland. It took a few years, but a law was passed to protect people under age 17 by mandating the use of bicycle helmets. We saw a 41 percent increase in helmet use.
What are you working on with the Children’s Safety Network?
One area of interest is preventing bullying. EDC has created the Bullying Prevention and Research Institute, which is helping us to collaborate across the organization to address this important issue. We believe if we can teach a child early on what’s acceptable and what’s not, and how to respect and treat others, then we’ll have a safer and much more civil and violence-free society. The more we make bullying an unacceptable behavior at home, at school, and in the community, the more likely we are to help students do better in school and reduce stress and other forms of violence.
How can you raise public awareness enough to bring about real change?
Bullying prevention has been a focus of educators, researchers, and public health providers for many years. There have been programs developed, and trainings and research conducted, and the federal government has paid attention to this issue. With these resources behind us, when the media started to attend to incidents of bullying, the public became more aware and more interested in prevention. CNN recently aired a program about bullying, and Sesame Street is focusing on bullying.
It took Michelle Obama to bring national attention to childhood obesity, which isn’t a new problem. The Susan G. Komen organization’s efforts have raised breast cancer awareness, and now you see pink ribbons everywhere. There’s still a very big challenge with educating decision-makers at the level of state legislators and Congress about the toll of injury and violence and the ways that prevention can preserve and improve the quality of life for children and adults.
CSN works well as the convener of state health agencies to bring people of like minds together. We pull together people who have an interest in the field of injury and violence prevention and try to create those “aha!” moments for them.