With Yukon MP Ryan Leef’s private members bill on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder debated this week on the House of Commons floor, FASD is a popular topic right now.
But as important as addressing how our justice and social systems handle people who struggle with the injury, we can’t forget about preventing it in the first place, says Donna Jones, the prevention and outreach coordinator with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society Yukon.
Jones just wrapped up FASSY’s first tour of Yukon schools, where she was bringing the message of “thinking before drinking” to the territory’s teenagers.
“Alcohol is being marketed so heavily to young people,” Jones said.
“I’m trying to get them to think about how alcohol has crept into our society in sometimes insidious ways.”
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is a brain injury caused when an unborn child is exposed to alcohol in the womb when its mother drinks during pregnancy.
One of the most concerning trends Jones has seen recently is the way alcohol is being marketed to women.
“There are new lines of alcohol and wines like Skinny Girl or drinks that are calorie reduced so girls don’t get fat. When women would get together for a baby shower it used to be over a cup of tea. Now it’s over a glass of wine,” she said.
That’s particularly concerning for teenagers who will soon be inhabiting the campuses and residences of colleges and universities, and being exposed to the often heavy drinking that goes along with dorm life.
But how do you talk to kids about FASD? Jones said it’s easier than you’d think. “Most of the students took the conversations seriously. In the smaller communities, many were surprisingly open about the issue,” she said.
“It was interesting in some of the communities where students have lots of experience with it. In one of them, the students immediately said, ‘Oh, there’s lots of that here.’”
Often FASD is not a stand-alone injury. Many times it is a result of deeper trauma and addiction in a family or community, and helping high school students identify that early on and understand the risks of alcohol is important, Jones said.
Schools can be the perfect place to teach those lessons, while also working as a safety net to catch kids who may be struggling silently with FASD. But that requires a healthy network of resources both inside and outside the school that are well funded and knowledgeable, Jones said.
“If (students with FASD) drop out, especially in the smaller communities before we can get them into programming and supports, that is a problem. In the communities, there is sometimes a sense of futility almost, people are aware of the problem but the resources are just stretched so thin.”
Jones has also been working with the student council from Yukon College on outreach ideas there. They’re working on an initiative for the fall aimed at making next year a “FASSY-nating year” at the school.
“Ideally we’d like to be able to raise enough money to put pregnancy test dispensing machines in the women’s bathrooms so women can find out if they think they might be pregnant, so they can think before they drink,” she said.
They are also working on getting the public on board with prevention as well.
Yukoners routinely out-drink their southern compatriots by nearly double every year. It’s no surprise that FASD is a struggle for many up here as well.
“We have this pride in being from the North and being big partiers and heavy drinkers. We’re not going to fight that,” said Jones, laughing. “So let’s embrace it and use it. If we could get the local retailers and distilleries on board, wouldn’t that be a coup?”
“In my own head there’s a sober today for our children tomorrow kind of approach. We do really value our children. Let’s talk about valuing them before they are born,” she said.
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