The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased alcohol use, skyrocketing stress levels and limited mental health and addiction services. Experts suspect that combination could lead to more cases of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
The lifelong disability affects the brain and body of people who were exposed to alcohol in the womb. An estimated 3,000 babies a year are born with FASD in Canada.
Dr. Gail Andrew says the pandemic created a “perfect storm” for increased alcohol use among women of childbearing age.
“When you look at all the factors… isolation, loss of jobs, financial stress… moms having to stay at home… it’s the perfect storm (for FASD),” Andrew told Global News.
“If someone is also dealing with untreated mental health (issues) or addictions, they couldn’t reach out to get help (during lockdowns).”
The medical director of FASD services at Edmonton’s Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital also points to the number of unplanned pregnancies in our country. According to the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, about 40 per cent of pregnancies in Canada are unintended.
Mothers of children with FASD often didn’t know they were pregnant when they consumed alcohol.
Audrey McFarlane, executive director of the CanFASD Research Network, is also worried cases of FASD have increased since the pandemic hit.
“The rates of alcohol use for women of childbearing years has increased during COVID as a coping strategy,” McFarlane told Global News.
She says the stigma related to FASD can delay diagnosis and access to supports for children, because mothers don’t want to admit to a doctor they drank while pregnant. Diagnosis requires confirmation of maternal alcohol use.
“(Prevention) is more than just a public health message, but actually supporting girls and women to have healthy pregnancies,” said McFarlane.
Andrew adds shaming and blaming mothers helps no one.
“Everybody should take one step back and ask, ‘Why is she drinking?'” said Andrew.
“(People with FASD) don’t have to end up homeless, they don’t have to end up uneducated, they don’t have to end up, sadly, into the justice system.”
Tannan Redcrow-Anderson of St. Albert, Alta., has FASD. She describes her biological mother as sweet and caring, but she’s disappointed she drank while pregnant.
When Redcrow-Anderson found out she had FASD as a child, she was “angry and upset.”
“It was a difficult journey my whole life… I had trouble understanding body language and I had trouble with math and making friends,” said the now-23-year-old.
“Tannan struggled with impulse control… she got angry quite easily,” said her legal guardian, Laurie Anderson.
Anderson became Redcrow-Anderson’s Big Sister after she was taken into foster care as a child. Her biological mother, who has since died, supported their relationship.
Anderson, whom Redcrow-Anderson now refers to as her “chosen mom,” explains the biological mother was the child of a residential school survivor and suffered from intergenerational trauma.
“Tannan’s mom had no intention of harming her children. She was overwhelmed and unable to deal with what life had put in her path,” said Anderson.
“(She) was trying to survive and she did it the only way she knew how.”
Redcrow-Anderson aims to be the first person in her biological family to graduate from high school.
“I hope that people with FASD are proud to be who they are are and happy to be ourselves,” said Redcrow-Anderson.
“Tannan can have just a hugely successful life. She’s got so many fabulous qualities,” added Anderson.
September is FASD Awareness Month.