Prevention Network (pNAT): More evidence that judging pregnant women’s behaviour is counterproductive

A few of our Prevention Network (pNAT) members recently spotted an online article entitled “Demonising smoking and drinking in pregnancy may lead women to do it in private, says study.” Read the online article about the study here.

This study from the University of Cardiff in Wales has confirmed what most women’s health advocates know – that judging pregnant women for behaviours that may negatively affect fetal and child health, did not cause them to stop, but instead caused them avoid public and professional scrutiny, and to use in private. Women felt judged by healthcare professionals for their smoking and poverty, which made interactions with health care providers awkward. (See journal article on the study here.)

In the research 10 low-income, pregnant women in Wales were asked to “tell their stories” including how pregnancy affects their everyday life. Although smoking was discussed extensively by the women, interviewers did not raise the topic during the interviews. As part of their stories, women described their smoking behaviours, and reactions from the public, family, friends, and health care providers.

This study underscores what we know about substance use prevention in general – shame and stigma are not solutions to helping people change use, and specifically that the judgement of health professionals is tied to not accessing the support that is needed and deserved. In that way, the professionals become part of the problem instead of the solution. Evidence has established that using non-judgmental approaches are key to supporting behaviour change.

These approaches emphasise harm reduction and employ collaborative and empathic conversations that respect individuals’ self determination and understand the underlying issues of substance use problems. Further to collaborative conversations, it is critical to understand substance use, and challenges to change substance use, as related to the burdens of violence and poverty faced by women – this forces us to move beyond a focus on individual behaviour and instead to action for social justice on these conditions of women’s lives.

The pNAT has written extensively about the importance of non-judgmental Level 2 discussions with women and their partners about alcohol, other substance use and the determinants of health that affect use. Included here are some resources that can help practitioners to engage in those discussions with women in a way that builds connection and relationship and supports movement toward positive change in alcohol and tobacco use, and related health and social concerns. As well, practitioners can connect to local pregnancy and addictions support programs to learn what community action to address stigma and promote social justice is underway.

References

Weinberger, A. H., Platt, J., Esan, H., Galea, S., Erlich, D., & Goodwin, R. D. (2017). Cigarette Smoking is Associated with Increased Risk of Substance Use Disorder Relapse: A Nationally Representative, Prospective Longitudinal Investigation. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 78(2), e152-e160.

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