This FASD campaign is a flop

If only ridding the territory of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder were as simple as crafting the right promotional campaign. Sadly, the problem is not so simple.

If only ridding the territory of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder were as simple as crafting the right promotional campaign.

Sadly, the problem is not so simple. Everybody by now ought to know that consuming alcohol while pregnant causes irreparable harm to a fetus. This has been well established for 40 years now, and numerous public education campaigns have already drilled that fact home.

The bigger problem is that people know this – and they continue to drink while pregnant.

It will be hard for many readers to comprehend how this happens. But some people have trouble imagining carrying on life without drinking. Many of these same people have also been so grinded down by abuse that they view their own lives as worthless. From there, it’s a small step to deny the value of a new life growing within your own body.

Irresponsible? Absolutely. And there’s a school of thought that there needs to be more blaming and shaming to prevent at-risk mothers from drinking – to make it clear that such actions are intolerable. As they should be.

But what this view misses is the emotional dimension to the problem. At-risk mothers need help to get through pregnancy without drinking. Ostracism will very likely have the opposite effect intended, pushing them over the edge to consume more booze.

Given this, a sensible approach to prevent future generations from being damaged by FASD is to do our best to support at-risk mothers.

So it was heartening to see a news release this week that indicated that our territorial leaders were planning on taking precisely that approach. And it was all the more upsetting to see that the actual publicity campaign unveiled this week is a complete flop, and totally misses its stated point, to “emphasize the community’s role in healthy pregnancies,” according to the news release.

The online banner ad asks readers the following trivia question: “A teratogen is…” Possible answers include alcohol, red wine, measles, or a dinosaur.

A teratogen, the ad later helpfully explains, is a substance that can cause birth defects. All the above, save for the dinosaur, count as such.

Quirky humour has its place, but this seems to fall flat, given the gravity of the problem being addressed.

And, however well-meaning the employees at the Department of Health may be, it would also be hard to imagine a more impenetrable approach to the subject. Perhaps in the next phase, the whole thing could be written in Latin?

And what is being accomplished? Well, the general public will soon be armed with a completely unnecessary piece of jargon, to say what everyone already knows: alcohol damages unborn babies. The better subject would be: what are we going to do to prevent mothers, who already know this, from drinking anyhow?

Our ministers know this. That’s why Health Minister Doug Graham opined, in a news release this week, “It is important to remind people that … FASD is a complex issue and people who struggle with addictions, including mothers, need our compassion and support.”

Or listen to Justice Minister Mike Nixon. “There are many factors that influence a woman’s decision to drink while pregnant, and there are no easy solutions,” he said.

These are important messages. So why aren’t they in the government’s campaign? We have no idea, but it would be no surprise if the territory had prepared publicity in line with the ministers’ message, that was later axed for fear of upsetting somebody. Politicians do, in general, prefer safe, bland messages to substantial ones that could be held against them. So we have this anodyne, cutesy, ineffective stuff instead. That’s a shame, because if the government is going to spend $10,000 on a FASD prevention campaign, why not try to actually move the discussion forward?

The Yukon Party deserves some credit for actually putting resources into helping people with FASD. It’s funded Options for Independence, a non-profit that provides supportive housing to residents with the disorder. Its new, 13-unit facility opened this year.

The territory also funds Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society Yukon, which advocates for clients with FASD and helps them navigate the bureaucratic mazes they’re often caught up in.

And the Yukon government is also conducting a worthwhile study that aims to learn how many residents who are either in jail or on probation suffer from FASD. It seems clear to anyone familiar with the territory’s justice system that the prevalence of the disorder among inmates is high. One Yukon judge has offered the astounding estimate that half of the inmates at Yukon’s jail have FASD.

Our MP, Ryan Leef, has also made a worthwhile contribution by calling for FASD to be recognized in Canada’s criminal code. If adopted, this measure could give judges additional discretion in sentencing criminals with FASD. This is totally at odds with the tough-on-crime schtick of the Conservative Party to which he belongs. The chances of Leef’s bill actually becoming law seem slim, and it remains unclear how this flexibility would work if it ran up against his party’s mandatory minimum sentences, but it remains a good idea.

It would be hard to tally the financial and emotional cost of FASD in this territory. Suffice to say it remains too high. It will probably remain with us until some deep-rooted social issues are addressed, but some candid talk about the problem is surely welcome. Our leaders already have the right idea. They just need the courage to run with it.

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