Man holding a drug needle. Photo taken in Helsinki. LEHTIKUVA


The number of deaths related to drugs in Helsinki reached its highest point in the past 15 years in 2021, with a notable increase in drug-related deaths among young people. These fatalities are often attributed to early substance use, the prevalence of polydrug use, and other high-risk behaviors such as injecting drugs, according to a new research article from the city council.

Between 2006 and 2021, drug-related deaths increased by four percent annually across Finland. Drug use tends to be higher in major cities in southern Finland compared to other regions. While cannabis experimentation and use have seen the most significant growth, the use of amphetamines, ecstasy, and cocaine has also risen notably.

Problematic drug use, which leads to serious social and health-related consequences, has also increased in the 2010s. The latest estimate suggests that 0.9–1.3 percent of the population aged 15–64 in the entire country are problematic drug users, with just under a third of them residing in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Problematic drug use has been most common among those aged 25–34, but it appears that there is now a younger generation in Finland, below this age group, that is using amphetamines and opioids problematically, and this group is larger than ever before.

In Finland, 20 percent of those who die from drug-related causes are residents of Helsinki.

In 2021, there were 287 drug-related deaths in Finland. Of these, 57, or one-fifth, were residents of Helsinki. When adjusted for population, the rate of drug-related deaths in Helsinki was 8.7 per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 5.2 per 100,000.

While drug-related mortality in Helsinki has been significantly higher than the national average throughout the entire period from 2006 to 2021, it has also increased in the city, albeit notably starting in 2015. Between 2015 and 2021, drug-related deaths in Helsinki increased by six percent annually. In 2021, the mortality rate was 1.7 times higher than in 2015.

It appears that drug-related mortality has also increased in the Helsinki metropolitan area, including Espoo and Vantaa, although the number of deaths in these cities remains relatively low, making the annual variations more significant.

The age groups with the highest drug-related mortality in Helsinki between 2006 and 2021 were 25–34 and 35–44. However, among those aged 15–24, drug-related mortality has increased since 2014. Since 2017, the mortality rate in this age group has increased by a staggering 31 percent annually. Statistically significant changes have not occurred in other age groups.

The proportion of young people's drug-related deaths in Finland is substantial compared to the rest of Europe and other Nordic countries. In Helsinki, the share of young individuals' drug-related deaths out of all drug-related deaths is significant, with one in seven cases involving individuals aged 15–24. Initiating substance use at a young age, polydrug use, and other high-risk behaviors, such as injecting drugs, are among the leading causes of drug-related deaths among Finnish youth.

One of the key strategies to reduce drug-related deaths is to expedite access to substitution treatment, especially for young people who are not currently receiving such treatment. Preventive substance abuse work and early detection of use should also be emphasized, as early initiation of substance use often leads to substance abuse problems.

The City of Helsinki aims to offer easily accessible, timely, and effective services to young people facing severe substance use and addiction issues. Starting in September, the low-threshold Pysäkki substance abuse service is designed for young individuals with severe substance use and addiction problems and the risk of social exclusion.

"Pysäkki is open on weekdays without the need for a referral, even anonymously, and sobriety is not a requirement. At Pysäkki, young people can receive guidance and counseling, psychosocial and outpatient withdrawal treatment, social rehabilitation, and, if necessary, a referral for the assessment of the need for substitution treatment or drug detoxification. For young people, inpatient care will begin within a week of receiving a referral," said Pia Pulkkinen, head of substance abuse services for the City of Helsinki, describing the new service.