Alcohol & Pregnancy: Irish researchers look towards the future of infant mental health

In a rural area of Galway, Ireland, mental health professionals gathered to speak as part of a drastic problem: Ireland’s pregnancy and alcohol misuse crisis.

According to a global study, published in the Lancet, over 60% of women in Ireland reported drinking during their pregnancy, making Ireland the top country in the world, next to the United Kingdom (41%) and Russia (37%).

Justin Gleeson, the Director of the All-Island Research Observatory (AIRO), and one of the guest speakers at a seminar on perinatal mental health, stated that the alcohol exposure rate in Ireland had reached even higher numbers “up to 70%.” Gleeson also stated approximately 1 in 100 babies are born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

The seminar, organized by Galway Healthy City — a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) — featured other guests including Malie Coyne, Mary T O’Mahony, Moira Plant, and Catherine Anne Field.

The panel tackled key issues before, during, and after pregnancy, as well as the stigma surrounding pregnancy and substance abuse, socio-behavioral risk factors, adverse childhood experiences, and how significant the first 1000 days of life are for an infant’s brain development.

Dr. Malie Coyne, a distinguished Irish Clinical Child Psychologist, had one of many goals as a guest speaker: to destigmatize parental substance misuse. Transitioning to parenthood requires significant psychological and social change, and with substance abuse being the most stigmatizing of all health issues, all mothers feel guilty.

“Core of issue is pain, low self-belief, life traumas, isolation. Guilt and shame can be a significant barrier preventing mothers from getting support,” Dr. Coyne believes. According to Dr. Coyne, pregnancy and alcohol misuse carries the following impacts on the quality of the caregiving environment.

  • Affects parent’s judgment & ability to provide care and supervision.
  • Can be socially isolated, hence less access to crucial external supports
  • Less time spent with kids and often inconsistent, harsh & erratic discipline
  • Increases conflict in families & often co-occurs with domestic violence
  • Effects of neglect include abandonment, maltreatment, low frustration tolerance & patterns of insecure/disorganized attachments.
  • Erratic histories mean that parent can lack foundation for effective parenting
  • Co-morbid depression/anxiety or DV decreased parental sensitivity

What can be done to help support those at-risk, especially young women, who are more likely to binge drink?

Early intervention and prevention on resilience factors, increasing inter-agency linkages, educating Irish women on adverse effects of alcohol on fetal outcome — are all suggestions expressed by Dr. Coyne to minimize stigma.

When asked if there is hope for Ireland’s pregnancy and alcohol misuse crisis, Dr. Coyne told Mental Daily: “I think it will start to decline gradually as public awareness is only beginning to take hold. It’s a difficult message in a country where alcohol is integral to almost everything.”

“We should extend our support to mothers, not our judgment,” said Dr. Coyne.

Image courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto
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