A small group of people met in the multipurpose room at the community college last Friday to talk about a health issue that many people in Prince Rupert face, but one that is completely preventable: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
The Prince Rupert FASD Awareness Committee held the gathering to let people talk and reflect on a disorder they have spent years fighting but which still plagues the city.
FASD is a condition caused by drinking during pregnancy, the symptoms vary greatly from person to person but it can cause brain damage, learning disabilities and emotional problems. The FASD Awareness Committee has been around for several years actively trying to educate the community and, especially, expectant mothers about the dangers of consuming alcohol during pregnancy. They also try to provide support for families and people affected by the disorder.
Dr. Jeff Simons is a doctor who originally came to Prince Rupert 11 years ago and quickly became involved with the committee, and he says the city has such a high level of support for those affected by FASD it comes as a shock to his colleagues in other communities.
“What happens in Prince Rupert is not what happens everywhere else. The community works together here and I have worked a lot with the school district. Somehow what’s happened here with the same amount of resources as elsewhere, is the spirit here means that things get done. Kids are supported even if they’re not officially diagnosed,” he said.
“When I talk to some of pediatrician colleagues, they have a level of frustration that I don’t have here.”
FASD is more prevalent in rural and northern communities and Aboriginal populations tend to suffer from it more than any other, so in a community like Prince Rupert the problem can be quite widespread. The committee says that progress is being made in combating the problem, but as Debbie Leighton-Stephens from the Aboriginal Education Council explains, the problem can be an invisible one, even in the classroom.
“Having this spectrum disorder comes with unforeseen challenges for children. If you walk into a classroom you’ll see 24 little smiling faces and you’ll never be able to pick out the one with FASD. Those disabilities are hidden but they need to be understood. It comes out in the learning challenges, it comes out in behavioral challenges,” she said.
“We need to recognize that every child has the right to do well in school and we as a community need to help in that, nit just the school district.”
FASD is also seen as another chapter in the fallout from the infamous residential schools, which caused damage to First Nations people and families; damage that many turned to alcohol to try to heal. That pain was shared by a few speakers who lived through the days when the schools were still operating and how family and friends turned to drink to find an escape from what happened.
On the same day that the meeting took place, the Provincial government announced a new anti-FASD campaign that will see posters, brochures and other material placed inside BC Liquor stores across the province.