Julia Kubow, B.A. MSW student and Bernadette O’Donnel, executive director FASD Assessment Society at the Okanagan Valley Support Society. (Brieanna Charlebois - Morning Star)

Vernon seeks additional fetal alcohol syndrome support B.C.-wide

“We are making a difference but we could make even more of a difference”

Vernon’s FASD Assessment Society is trying to raise awareness and dispel myths surrounding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

FASD is a brain injury that can occur when an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol. It’s a lifelong disorder with effects that range from mild to severe and can include physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities.

Bernadette O’Donnel, Executive director FASD Assessment Society at the Okanagan Valley Support Society, is calling for more clinics B.C.-wide to help diagnose adults.

“It’s hard to identify. If you don’t receive the diagnosis as a youth, as you transition into adulthood, the frustrations around not being understood and not being not being supported become overwhelming. The anxiety level is exceptionally high and many end up needing to self medicate,” she said, noting the homeless and drug problem throughout the province.

“It becomes a massive cycle that is exceptionally expensive to society in order to be able to financially support these people.”

This only occurs in extreme cases; the condition can take on many forms and can affect various body parts as the individual ages. Though the number of people who have FASD is not known because it is difficult to diagnose and often goes undetected, it is considered the leading known cause of preventable developmental disability in Canada according to CanFASD.

“There are lots of myths surrounding the disorder; one of the main ones being that people think you have to be a heavy drinker while pregnant,” O’Donnel said, citing the binge drinking culture in North America.

According to a 2017 national survey by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, about 61 per cent of Canadian women stated they have had unintended pregnancies.

“A lot of times women are drinking when they don’t know they’re pregnant, which is also a problem — even though most stop after finding out,” she said. “If you’re thinking of having a family, I always advise people not to drink to avoid any risk.”

While there are many clinics across the province to diagnose FASD in youth, there are fewer that focus on adult diagnoses.

Located on the first floor of the People Place on 27th Avenue, this Vernon-based Spec-Team (Specialized Team) Assessment Society Clinic is one such clinic. It opened its doors in 2017. They follow the Multidisciplinary Team Training for Diagnosis of FASD to aid diagnosis and then provide individuals with the tools they need to succeed.

Private assessments are offered in response to current gaps for people and families who require more urgent service, or do not fit into current public options. The costs associated with a private assessment can vary greatly depending on the assessment needs. According to a 2013 study, the total cost for one individual to be screened, referred, admitted, and diagnosed ranges from $3,110 to $4,570 (32 to 47 hours per person).

“The funding (for assessments) is significant for us to continue because the need for this type of service is huge,” she said.

O’Donnel asserts that a diagnosis can change lives for those struggling with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder into adulthood. She encourages anyone who has been diagnosed, or anyone who suspects they have FASD, to go in and speak with staff. In addition to diagnostic analysis, the Spec Team offers various services including running support groups, aiding in resume building, interview preparation, helping people understand their probation conditions wherever necessary, and helping people find adequate housing.

“Support is a huge aspect to what we do,” said O’Donnel. “The more we can help the community understand that we’re here, the better. We are making a difference but we could make even more of a difference.”

Related: FASD assessment clinic opens

Related: Sobriety is freedom

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