Mental Illness Awareness Week – Through the Lens of FASD

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October 6 to 12 is Mental Illness Awareness Week! Held annually during the first week of October, Mental Illness Awareness Week is a public education campaign in Canada designed to increase our understanding of the realities of mental illnesses.

This year, Mental Illness Awareness Week happens to coincide with World Mental Health Day, a global celebration to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world, and to garner supports and resources for mental health initiatives.

Mental health is different from mental illness. Everyone has mental health, but not everyone experiences mental illness. Our mental health is our mental well-being, which incorporates our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to solve problems and overcome challenges, our social connections and supports, and our understanding of the world. Mental illness is a condition that affects the way people think, feel, behave, or interact with other people. Just like physical illnesses, mental illness can come in many different forms.

With the right treatment individuals can recover from mental illness. However, the stigma surrounding mental illness is a major barrier to accessing effective, successful treatment and supports. Mental Illness Awareness Week is a great way to help increase the public’s understanding of mental illnesses and reduce the shame and stigma that is so prominent in our society.

Although mental illnesses do not discriminate among those affected, individuals with FASD experience higher rates of mental illness than the rest of the Canadian population. Up to 90% of individuals with FASD experience a metal illness.

Some of the most common mental health issues for individuals with FASD include depression, mood and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder (CD). Additionally, individuals who have a mental illness are two times as likely to experience a substance abuse problem while individuals with a substance abuse problem are three times more likely to experience mental illness.

Screening for mental illness early in the lives of individuals with FASD can be an important strategy to early identification and treatment.

The problem is that medical professionals in Canada do not have a strong understand of FASD and do not have the appropriate training needed to diagnose and treat this disorder. As a result, FASD is commonly undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. A study from 2015 found that 80% of 547 foster and adopted youth with FASD were not diagnosed, despite involvement in the medical system. Additionally, 6.4% of that sample were misdiagnosed.

A misdiagnosis is relatively common in individuals with FASD. This is partly due to the fact that individuals with FASD exhibit behaviours commonly associated with other mental illnesses, and partly because individuals with FASD frequently experience mental illness.

The issue is that treatments addressing mental illnesses in individuals with FASD are ineffective if they do not account for FASD.

In 2012, the Mental Health Commission of Canada released the national Mental Health Strategy, Changing Directions, Changing Lives. While this is a significant step forward for mental health initiatives in Canada, this strategy falls short of ensuring equitable supports and resources for all Canadians. We cannot improve the mental health and well-being of all Canadians if we do not think outside the box and take into consideration the unique conditions that cannot effectively be addressed with a cookie-cutter solution.

FASD needs to be incorporated into Canada’s Mental Health Strategy. We need to ensure our medical professionals have the necessary training to diagnose and treat individuals with FASD. But, above all, we need to ensure we develop the appropriate supports and resources to treat mental illnesses in individuals with FASD.

Just as a band-aid won’t fix a bullet wound, current mental health strategies are ill-equipped to support individuals with FASD.

To learn more about mental health, mental illness, and FASD, please read our recent publication, reviewing the 2012 Mental Health Strategy for Canada.

The more we talk about mental illness, mental health, and FASD, the more we can raise awareness of these issues. You can help by asking questions, sharing your stories, and starting a conversation around FASD and mental illness. Use the hashtags #FASD and #MIAW19 to get started!

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