Let’s Talk About FASD and Mental Health

Bell Let’s Talk launched in 2010 as a campaign to build understanding and catalyze action on mental health. The campaign has grown over the last 10 years and has been extremely influential in raising Canadians’ awareness of mental health.

We’d like to take this campaign one step further and focus on the mental health of a specific population of Canadians – those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Approximately 4% of our population have FASD, a lifelong disability impacting the brain and body of people who were exposed to alcohol during fetal development. More people are affected by FASD in Canada than Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, and Down Syndrome combined, yet most Canadians have a poor understanding of what FASD is and who it impacts.

Individuals with FASD face significant mental health challenges, both as a result of their disability and as a by-product of the stigma surrounding FASD.

Some of the most common mental health issues for individuals with FASD include mood and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and conduct disorder. 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, with up to 90% of individuals with FASD experiencing a mental illness.

Substance use concerns are also extremely common in individuals with FASD, with 53% of males and 70% of females reporting substance use issues. This rate is 5 times the rate of the general population. Individuals with FASD may also be at a higher risk of suicidal thoughts. Researchers have shown that 43% of individuals with FASD have threatened to commit suicide, and 23% have experienced a suicide attempt.

These numbers show that mental health is an extremely important consideration when discussing the needs, supports, and resources for individuals with FASD. 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 traditional therapeutic approaches to addressing mental illnesses are ineffective when they do not take into consideration the unique impact of FASD. When recommending treatments, mental health professionals should be aware that individuals with FASD often have difficulty understanding information, following directions, and applying information they’ve learned into real-world scenarios.

However, there are a number of ways professionals can overcome these challenges, including:

  • Using clear, direct statements and step-by-step directions to avoid confusion;
  • Using repetition to ensure the client has retained the information provided;
  • Accounting for sensory processing issues when developing treatment plans;
  • Practicing in stable environments with minimal change in order to minimize anxiety; and
  • Providing resources to improve their organizational and time management skills in order to ensure they complete everyday responsibilities.

The bottom line is that individuals with FASD need mental health treatment that is FASD-informed. FASD needs to be incorporated into Canada’s Mental Health Strategy. We need to ensure our medical and mental health professionals have the necessary training to diagnose and support individuals with FASD. But, above all, we need to ensure we develop the appropriate services and resources to support mental illnesses in individuals with FASD.

The more we talk about mental illness, mental health, and FASD, the more we can raise awareness of these issues and spark action. You can help by asking questions, sharing your stories, and starting a conversation around FASD and mental illness. Use the hashtags #MentalHealth4FASD and #BellLetsTalk to get started!