Women who drink during pregnancy at greater risk to die by suicide: study

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Women who drink during pregnancy and give birth to children who have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are more likely to attempt and die by suicide, a University of Manitoba study has found.

It is the first Canadian study to look at health data in relation to the prevalence of suicide among mothers whose children have FASD. The report was recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

“The common perception of women who drink alcohol during pregnancy is that they have failed society,” said Deepa Singal, a PhD candidate at the U of M and 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.

Researchers analyzed anonymous data stored at the U of M to trace the health history of mothers whose children had FASD and compared it to mothers whose children did not.

They found mothers of children with FASD are more prone to both suicide attempts and death by suicide. The study also found they are more likely to be poor, single parents and suffer from mental disorders.

“Identifying groups of women who are at risk for suicidal behaviour is crucial for developing effective suicide-prevention strategies,” Singal said.

Data from 700 mothers whose children had FASD was analyzed and compared with data from 2,100 mothers whose children did not. The data used traced the mothers’ medical history from 1979 to 2013.

Although researchers expected to find mothers of children with FASD had higher rates of suicide attempts during pregnancy and during the first year of the child’s life, this did not prove true; instead, they found the mothers were at an increased risk of suicide later in life.

The mothers whose children had FASD did show higher rates of prenatal and postpartum psychological distress, researchers said.

The findings point to a need to identify women at a high risk to drink during pregnancy and screen them for suicidal behaviour and mental disorders, according to Singal.

She said it highlights the need to provide mental-health services for women who drank during pregnancy to prevent suicide later in life.

“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.

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