The Mental Health Commission of Canada continues to ignore individuals with FASD

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Written by: Kathy Unsworth, CanFASD Managing Director

New suicide fact sheets have just been released by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) that focus on suicide prevention among groups who may be at increased risk. But a group of individuals at extraordinarily high risk of suicide is missing from the conversation: those with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

The MHCC has released fact sheets about suicide in men, youth, and those working in agriculture or living in rural and remote communities. But they continue to leave out FASD from this conversation. This is a mistake. Individuals with FASD are at a substantially high risk of suicide. We have data.  We have published evidence.

Suicide ideation in individuals with FASD is twice the rate of the general population. In a recent study, thirteen percent of participants had at least one serious suicide attempt in the previous year. This is five times higher than the rate in the general population. Kids with FASD experience suicidality at a significantly younger age than those without FASD, but the National FASD Database also shows that rates of suicide are highest for transition-aged youth and adolescents. In fact, suicide is a leading cause of death in individuals with FASD.

But somehow the high-risk individuals within FASD within this group are not even mentioned by the MHCC. Individuals with FASD don’t get a fact sheet. Or even a mention in the public health emergency memo. Individuals with FASD are ignored by the MHCC, not just in suicide prevention but in all aspects of their mental health work.  It is well documented that 90% of individuals with FASD will have at least one mental health issue in their lifetime. With 1.5 million Canadians with FASD – that translates to 1.3 million who have both FASD and a mental health issue.

The MHCC states that suicide in Canada is an ongoing public health crisis. But there is a silver lining – mental health and public health initiatives can solve this crisis. Solutions to address suicide rates in Canada won’t work if you don’t acknowledge a key portion of the population that is impacted. Yes, we need mental health and public health initiatives. But we also need to recognize all the groups at risk and provide supports that fit their experiences. We know that when individuals with FASD are unidentified and unsupported they struggle. They experience many secondary adverse outcomes, including mental health issues and suicide early identification and support can help.

While this statement may seem like a criticism of the MHCC, it is actually a reflection of a much larger issue.  Despite a prevalence rate of 4% (higher than autism, cerebral palsy and Downs syndrome combined) FASD gets very little funding and very limited attention in Canada.

The blame does not rest solely with the MHCC. Our federal government must take the lead on FASD and identify that this is a disability and a major health and social issue that needs our attention. Canada needs a National FASD Strategy. We need policies that help practitioners consistently and effectively identify those with FASD and provide evidence-based supports across the lifespan for this vulnerable population and their families. A National FASD Strategy will give our provinces and territories an evidence-based direction to improve FASD prevention, diagnosis, and support. It will reduce the rates of suicide and other mental health challenges in this population and help Canadians with FASD reach their full potential.

Federal leadership on FASD will signal other organizations (like the MHCC) that people with FASD matter. They are worth investing in and should no longer be ignored. Without an organized strategy we will keep going as we always have – with people with FASD and their families continuing to experience unprecedented rates of adversity and not having equal opportunities to achieve success.

For more information on FASD and suicidality, read our recently published paper here.

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