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Experts: Coronavirus measures could increase alcoholism, social problems

The novel coronavirus crisis could be putting a financial and social strain on families and people who live alone.

Image: Teemu Salonen / Lehtikuva
Yle News

As people get used to telecommuting, home schooling and social distancing during the novel coronavirus pandemic, experts say they fear that substance abuse and child welfare problems could escalate.

Helsinki mayor Jan Vapaavuori has already expressed concern about a potential social crisis brewing as people grapple with new ways of living.

"We have understood that this is a major health and economic risk, but I fear that the social aspect could be the most difficult. Isolation, alcohol and the national Finnish character are a problematic equation," Vapaavuori told Yle's Ykkösaamu discussion programme.

Harri Seppälä, substance abuse medical chief for private health provider Terveystalo, told news agency STT that he shares similar concerns about the negative fallout from the economic crisis incurred by the pandemic.

"If there is a lot of unemployment and bankruptcies, it will absolutely be reflected in people not doing well. It could be a tough situation if public finances that were not in great shape to begin with, were to radically worsen, while at the same time the need for different support systems and services increased," Seppälä noted.

Outsiders don't know how kids are doing

According to Seppälä, the partial state of emergency that has forced people to largely remain inside four walls is also a risk factor for increased alcohol consumption.

"Normal social life is on hold and social controls are gone. Even people who have no substance abuse problems might drink more. Especially for people who are already on the risk threshold for alcohol abuse, the journey to substance abuse is significantly higher than for moderate users," he pointed out.

Sepplä noted that many alcohol abusers can function at work, but in a state of emergency even this could fail.

"The social control you have at the workplace is not present during remote work, so colleagues or bosses don't see what shape you're in. During the evening you might consume more than you planned, thinking that it wouldn't matter in the morning and that you can be a bit more tired," he explained.

The substance abuse medical chief said that he is also worried about the impact of the epidemic on child welfare, an area that he said would be equally affected by a lack of social controls.

"An adult on the outside would not necessarily see how children are faring, whether or not they are properly dressed and how they behave. Now that we have been asked to stay at home, we cannot see [what's happening] there," he noted.

Busy mental health hotlines

Mental Health Finland (Mieli) said that coronavirus accounted for just 1.3 percent of calls to nationwide mental health hotlines. However between 16 and 22 March, that proportion soared to more than 15 percent.

"People are distressed and wondering how to get through this. Some calls are from young women with anxiety. There are also younger people calling for ideas about how to pass the time in isolation," Mieli crisis director Outi Ruishalme said.

She added that the subject of coronavirus also surfaced increasingly in youth chat services. She observed that the burden on social services would depend largely on how long the pandemic and the related state of emergency continue.

The crisis is expected to be especially hard on families with a prior history of substance abuse and mental health problems, and which need support from child welfare services. According to Ruishalme for many children growing up in problem families, contact with the outside world is important. However the crisis has now put school and hobbies on ice.

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