Let’s Talk About Stigma, Mental Health, and FASD

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Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day, an annual campaign to raise awareness of mental illness and raise funds for mental health initiatives. Today, Bell Canada will donate money to various mental health programs. The more chatter on social media using the branded hashtag, #BellLetsTalk, or its French equivalent, #BellCause, the more funds they will donate.

The goal of Bell Let’s Talk Day is to raise awareness of mental health issues, reduce stigma, increase accessibility to treatment, and make a positive change in the attitude towards mental illness nationally. This is an important opportunity to bring Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) into the conversation around mental health.

FASD and Mental Health

People with FASD are an important population to consider when talking about mental health. People with FASD face extremely high rates of mental health challenges. Over 90% of people with FASD will have at least one mental health challenge in their lifetime.

Mental illness also significantly impacts women who are pregnant and parenting. Hormone and body changes, the stress of becoming a parent, and changes in relationships can all contribute to mental health issues. Recent studies suggest that up to 20% of women suffer from mood or anxiety disorders during pregnancy. Furthermore, postpartum depression affects many women. When unaddressed, it can lead to more severe issues such as prolonged depression and psychosis if left untreated.

Mental health is also a key topic to discuss when considering the health and wellbeing of caregivers and family members. Caregivers of people with FASD face higher stress levels than most people.  In a 2009 study, 92% of primary caregivers of individuals with FASD had clinically elevated stress levels. These numbers show that finding effective ways for caregivers to manage stress is especially important.

Reducing Stigma and Discrimination

Stigma is the negative stereotype and discrimination is the behaviour that results from this negative stereotype—both of which make mental health challenges worse. Stigma often emerges in the form of derogatory language that shames and belittles people. It can ultimately prevent people from seeking professional help or treatment out of feelings of fear or shame.

As a major clinical risk factor, stigma can delay treatment seeking, worsen course and outcomes, reduce compliance, and increase the risk of relapse in certain mental health issues. This in turn can lead to additional symptoms, discrimination, and isolation.

A key goal of Bell Let’s Talk Day is to reduce the stigma around mental illness. This goal is especially important for those with FASD, women who use substances, and their family and support systems. The multiple layers of stigma these populations experience can impact healthy outcomes.

FASD, Mental Health and Stigma

People with FASD face stigma around their diagnosis, their perceived abilities, and the preconceived ideas society has about these individuals. In addition, many people with FASD also have mental health and substance use issues, which can add further stigma.

The impact of stigma towards mothers and women who use substances during pregnancy can negatively impact their health and well-being. With feelings such as guilt and shame, women may choose not to disclose their substance use out of fear of judgement and/or punishment. This further discourages women to seek support. Providers also may hold certain incorrect beliefs that only certain “types” of women drink during pregnancy. As a result, women may have problematic drinking habits that go unaddressed because they don’t fit that stereotype.  Having open, honest, non-judgemental conversations about substance use with all women is important to ensure everyone gets the care they need.

The multiple layers of stigma associated with FASD, substance use, and mental health issues can be deeply harmful. Coordinated effort are needed to reduce stigma at the individual, familial, community, and societal levels. These efforts are critical for ensuring that these people and their families, as well as women who use alcohol during pregnancy, are better understood, respected, and have access to a wide range of services and supports systems that will help to increase quality of life and foster positive outcomes.

Challenging Stigma

One of the ways we can reduce stigma is by understanding that language matters. Using person-first language, which focuses on the individual, and not their disorder is one way to change our language to reduce stigma. For example, say, “someone who has a substance use addiction” instead of saying “an addict.” This method promotes dignity for all.Changing our language can encourage people to seek help, increases the availability of and access to quality healthcare services, and encourages unbiased, effective policy. CanFASD also produced a language guide to refer to when talking about FASD.

Increasing awareness of FASD, substance use, and mental health issues in our society is another way to bring positive change in attitudes. Recognizing that FASD as a unique disability is a start. It is also important to learn more about mental health, FASD, and substance use from both an evidence-based perspective and by listening to stories of those with lived experience. This will help you identify and support those with FASD and mental illness in your profession and understand their needs.

Let’s Talk About FASD and Mental Health

Every year, Bell will donate towards mental health initiatives in Canada by contributing 5¢ when people engage on social media using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag and use Bell services. By talking together today, we can all reduce stigma against FASD and mental health issues.

For more information, please email us at info@canfasd.ca.

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