Mothers of children with FASD at increased risk for suicide, U of M study
Women who give birth to children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) are at increased risk of attempting suicide and dying by suicide, a University of Manitoba study has found.
This is the first Canadian study to analyze health data in order to quantify the burden of suicide among mothers of children with FASD, said Deepa Singal, a PhD candidate in community health sciences at the U of M’s Max Rady College of Medicine.
“The common perception of women who drink alcohol during pregnancy is that they have failed society,” said Singal, the lead author of the study. “However, the increased rate of suicide among these mothers shows how society may be failing them.”
FASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can occur when a baby is exposed to alcohol in the womb. It can have lifelong effects that include physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities.
“Pregnant women don’t drink to intentionally harm the unborn baby. They likely consume alcohol to cope with stressful life circumstances and addiction, or they may not realize they are pregnant,” Singal said.
“We found that social and health challenges faced by mothers of children with FASD place them at increased risk for suicide.”
The study analyzed anonymous health information stored in a data repository at the U of M’s Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. Researchers used FASD diagnoses in children in order to identify a study cohort of about 700 mothers.
They traced these mothers’ contacts with the health system over a period of up to 34 years (1979 to 2013), comparing them with a group of about 2,100 mothers whose children did not have FASD.
The study found that mothers of children with FASD have higher rates of suicide attempts and suicide completion. They also have higher rates of social complexities (such as poverty and single parenthood), mental disorders and alcohol use that put them at risk for suicide.
The women in the study cohort did not have a higher rate of suicide attempts during pregnancy and the postpartum period (the first year of the baby’s life). This was contrary to what the researchers expected. But it is important to note, Singal said, that those in the study cohort had a high rate of prenatal and postpartum psychological distress.
The study highlights the need for mental health supports for women who use alcohol during pregnancy and whose children are diagnosed with FASD.
“Identifying groups of women who are at risk for suicidal behavior is crucial for developing effective suicide-prevention strategies,” Singal said.
The findings point to a need for services that: (1) screen for suicidal behavior in women who are at high risk to use alcohol during pregnancy and are diagnosed with mental disorders; and (2) provide mental health support for women who have alcohol-exposed pregnancies to help prevent suicide later in life.
This study is part of a larger research project by the same team, the Manitoba Mothers and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Study. It is looking at the life circumstances of women who have given birth to a child diagnosed with FASD in the province.
The study received funding from Research Manitoba, the Evelyn Shapiro Award for Health Services Research and the Canadian Foundation on Fetal Alcohol Research.