According to new research from the University of New Brunswick (UNB), one-third of young adults in New Brunswick have been drinking more alcohol over the course of the pandemic. These new findings are alarming experts at New Brunswick’s Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Centre of Excellence (FASDCE) in Moncton.
Currently, about 250 babies per year are born with FASD each year in New Brunswick and FASD is the leading cause of neurodevelopmental disability in Canada, affecting approximately 4% of the general population.
In her interview with CBC News, the provincial manager of FASDCE, Annette Cormier, said exposure to alcohol in the womb can begin to cause damage to a developing fetus as early as 17 days after conception. “That’s your fifth week into your pregnancy,” she said. “And most of these mothers don’t even know that they’re pregnant. That’s the first time you’re missing your period.”
The symptoms of FASD include distinguishing facial features including thin upper lip or small eyes, as well as difficulty regulating behaviours and emotions, and impaired memory, reasoning and judgment. Furthermore, FASD often causes damage to vision and hearing, while causing slow growth and impaired bone development.
Although the brain damage inflicted to the developing fetus by alcohol is irreversible, FASDCE offers support to families and interventions that can help individuals and children with the disorder.
“Because what’s happening is, the brain is still developing and we’re able to create from the parts of the brain that are really working well, we’re able to help children learn differently,” said Cormier. “So the sooner we can start, the better.”
According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, there’s no known safe amount to drink during any time in a pregnancy. “Even the smallest amount of alcohol could impact the fetus,” said Cormier.
Cormier expressed concern regarding women who don’t abstain from alcohol because they’re not thinking about getting pregnant.
Last summer, research at the New Brunswick Institute for Research, Data and Training at UNB carried out part of a national survey on 500 New Brunswick residents to evaluate the mental health impacts of COVID-19.
The results showed that the stress of the pandemic, including social isolation and the fear of infection, were all identified as having a negative impact on mental health.
The survey also showed an increase in alcohol consumption across the country, with a total of 27% of Canadians and 27% of New Brunswick residents reporting drinking more. More concerning was that 32% of New Brunswick residents aged 18-to-39 reported drinking more.
Another survey is underway and the data is focused on examining gender differences to find out the effects of COVID-19 on the mental health of New Brunswickers over last winter. “I’m anticipating it’s going to get worse,” said McGill University Health Centre Research Institute research associate Sandra Magalhaes.
Another part of the study will be carried out next fall, to complete the picture examining how the mental health impacts of COVID-19 are changing in the province over time.