Trainee Series: Considering Implicit Bias as a Mental Health Professional

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Written by Emma Jewell (She/Her), MSW, RSW, as part of her work with the CanFASD trainee program.

As mental health professionals, it is our responsibility to engage in reflective practice and consider how assumptions, stigma, and implicit bias can impact our thinking and behaviour in the context of providing support to people with FASD. This awareness and shift in thinking will allow us to be more accepting of each person’s unique strengths, challenges, and needs.

What is Implicit Bias?

Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes, ideas, and/or stereotypes about people that can influence our thinking, behaviour, and action. Implicit biases are often learned and perpetuated through the media, personal experiences, learned norms and values, as well as misconceptions and a lack of information.   

How Do Implicit Biases Impact Support for People with FASD?

People with FASD experience significant stigma stemming from misconceptions about alcohol use and pregnancy, prominent and entrenched stereotypes about people with FASD (e.g., lazy, violent), and a general lack of information and misunderstanding about FASD.

Some potential implicit biases may include the belief that FASD only affects people of certain races or socioeconomic backgrounds or that FASD is 100% preventable. In reality, FASD can occur in any culture where alcohol is consumed and can impact anyone exposed to alcohol prenatally, regardless of race or background. There are also many factors that influence alcohol use during pregnancy so to claim FASD is 100% preventable is an oversimplification of a complex problem.

Without examining and addressing our implicit biases, they can show up unintentionally in our support and interactions with clients. These biases may lead us to underdiagnose and undertreat FASD, perpetuate shame and blame, provide inadequate support, use stigmatizing language, or influence the overall quality of the relationship we develop with clients.

How Can You Recognize Your Implicit Biases?

Implicit biases can be difficult to address because we are often unaware that we have them, they are often automatic, and it can be challenging to accept that we may hold harmful perceptions and prejudices toward certain groups of people. However, until we recognize our biases, we can’t address them.

Self-reflection is, therefore, an extremely important step towards recognizing bias. Tools such as Implicit Association Tests can help in recognizing where you may have areas of bias. However, implicit bias tests, content, and materials specific to FASD are limited.

How Can You Address Implicit Bias?

(1) Think critically about the content you consume and consider the sources of information and whether they are evidence-based.

(2) Consider the language you use to support shifts in judgments and thinking.

(3) Learn about other ways of thinking about disability such as a social view of disability which can increase our understanding of structural barriers and move away from seeing individuals as “the problem”.

(4) Continually engage in reflection, take time to think about your own identity, social positioning, understanding, and practices and knowledge (e.g., seeking feedback from others, journaling, reading).

(5) Get comfortable with the discomfort that may arise as we explore our biases, actions, and role in systemic oppression. Embracing our uneasiness as part of this process will help us to move beyond reflection toward action.

As mental health professionals, it is our responsibility to be continual learners and engage in meaningful consideration of the implicit biases we hold and how they may impact our work.

Stay tuned for the FASD and mental health toolkit for mental health professionals.

Available summer of 2023!

Meanwhile, here are some additional resources on the topics of bias, stigma, and information on FASD for mental health professionals:

Emma is a research assistant with the Psychology, Law and Neurodevelopmental (PLAN) Policy and Research Group at the University of Guelph as well as with the Canada FASD Research Network. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph before her Master of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. Emma is passionate about conducting research that connects to practice, advocacy, and systemic change and enjoys working and researching in the context of the criminal legal system, with an emphasis on mental health and disability.

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