Drug use among the young: In Finland, fighting drug abuse a coordinated effort

Mr Christian Wentzel, executive manager of Children of the Station. The group befriends young people at malls, on the streets and outside railway stations where they loiter. It also reaches out to suburban youth from at-risk neighbourhoods via a bus
Mr Christian Wentzel, executive manager of Children of the Station. The group befriends young people at malls, on the streets and outside railway stations where they loiter. It also reaches out to suburban youth from at-risk neighbourhoods via a bus and vans.ST PHOTO: SEOW BEI YI

Every community has a group overseeing local prevention efforts

It is 4pm on a Wednesday in suburban Helsinki, and around 10 children are gathered at a youth centre, playing video games or chatting. A pool table stands in what feels like a cosy living room, and a dance studio lies farther in the compound.

This centre in the suburb of Pasila is one of three nearby offering free activities for young people, said Ms Elisa Prepula, 47, area coordinator for Klaari - the city's unit for coordinating substance-abuse prevention work among its youth. There are over 40 youth centres in Helsinki.

Such centres are one of its many community partners - which include the police, schools and parishes - in disseminating the substance-abuse prevention message.

"What we do in our network helps, not by going straight to the children, but with a trickle-down effect," said Ms Prepula. For example, Klaari handles a programme where 15- to 16-year-olds are trained as "peer educators" on issues like alcohol and cannabis abuse. They then teach their younger peers.

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By law, every community in Finland has a group like Klaari, overseeing local prevention efforts, said Ms Elsi Vuohelainen of Preventiimi, a national knowledge centre for substance-abuse prevention among the youth.

Drug abuse in Finland is below average, according to the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, which collects data among 16-year-old students.

 
 
 
 

Only 2 per cent of this group said they have used illicit drugs besides cannabis in 2015, compared with the regional average of 5 per cent.

But with cannabis growing in popularity, Finland has been trying to increase dialogue with the youth, and help professionals deal with the problem.

According to a 2014 study on the use and opinion of drugs, in 1998, 19 per cent of those aged between 15 and 24 said they had tried cannabis. This grew to 23 per cent in 2014. Meanwhile figures for those aged 25 to 34 grew from 19 per cent to 38 per cent in this period.

The trend prompted Mr Kim Kannussaari, an expert from the EHYT Finnish Association for Substance Abuse Prevention, a non-governmental organisation, to embark on a three-year project encouraging teachers and youth workers to talk about cannabis with the young.

With the younger generation more informed about drugs, "dialogue is the main thing; you have to listen to what the youth say, then respond", he said.

Groups such as Children of the Station do daily outreach with youth at malls, on the streets, and outside railway stations where they loiter. "It's about providing reliable grown-ups for kids," said executive manager Christian Wentzel.

To reach youth in the suburbs or countryside, it has a bus and vans too, travelling to needed areas - where there may be violence, drugs or social risk. Its Walkers House in Helsinki, which has a cafe for youth, saw 35,000 visits last year, up from some 24,000 in 2014. Walkers' activities take place in 11 cities and towns in Finland.

Ms Karoliina Kauhanen, 23, who grew up in Southern Finland, said she has been offered drugs multiple times since she was 15.

Wanting to make a difference in her community, she started a theatre group seven years ago as "an alternative way to spend time in rural areas". She said: "I have noticed that the at-risk group is the one that most desperately needs and wants to spend time in a safe environment with other teens, with no pressure from adults."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'In Finland, fighting drug abuse a coordinated effort'. Print Edition | Subscribe