When “Awareness” Isn’t Enough

frameworks institute

New study explores public thinking about prenatal exposure to alcohol 

Advocates working to prevent and address fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) are facing a dilemma familiar to those who work on substance use issues. The public is aware of the problem and even considers it important. Yet, public thinking also includes many unproductive assumptions and beliefs that complicate efforts to build support for evidence-based solutions.

new study by the FrameWorks Institute offers public health advocates a map to navigate a “swamp” of deep-seated–and unhelpful–beliefs about motherhood, substance use, willpower, responsibility, and morality.

FrameWorks researchers headed to the Canadian province of Manitoba and found that experts and the public hold sharply different perspectives on the causes of prenatal alcohol exposure. Experts, thinking at the population level, point to social factors like trauma and the role it can play in addiction. This includes the historical trauma experienced by Indigenous communities and the higher prevalence of physical and sexual trauma experienced by women.

The public, on the other hand, holds individual women responsible for causing the disorder–seeing them as selfish and irresponsible. In turn, these stigmatizing views make prevention, diagnosis, early intervention, and treatment more difficult, as it dampens discussion about prenatal alcohol exposure among professionals, patients, and the public.

To reframe the issue, researchers point to the need to broaden the discourse from one focused narrowly on consumption to one that includes social and biological factors.

“Seeing the Spectrum: Mapping the Gaps between Expert and Public Understandings of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder” was commissioned by Healthy Child Manitoba and adds to FrameWorks research on the communications aspects of health, substance use, and brain development.

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