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Thesis: Challenges faced by young adults exposed to prenatal substance use


18.10.2023 - Niina-Maria Nissinen's doctoral dissertation provides information on secondary disorders, such as educational challenges, long-term financial assistance problems, and mental health issues experienced by young people exposed to substances during pregnancy. According to the study, prenatal substance exposure alone does not explain the challenges at the onset of adulthood. Other factors increasing the risk include environmental risks and instability during growth. Nissinen emphasises the early identification and individualised support of young people at risk.


Substance use (alcohol, illegal drugs) during pregnancy is a significant risk factor, particularly for the development of the fetus's central nervous system and brain. Exposure to substances during pregnancy increases the risk of lifelong disorders in various developmental areas. These disorders can manifest as challenges in a child's cognitive development, executive functioning, behaviour, and adaptive skills. These disorders can make them more prone to challenges during adolescence. These challenges, such as those related to education, mental health, employment, and independent living in adolescence, are termed "secondary disabilities" in English.


Master of Health Sciences and Philosophy Niina-Maria Nissinen studied the secondary disorders in 15-24-year-old young people exposed to substances during pregnancy in relation to peers of the same age. Additionally, Nissinen examined the association of maternal disadvantage factors and out-of-home placement with secondary disorders.


The results showed that young people exposed to maternal substance use during pregnancy were less likely to complete secondary education and required long-term financial assistance more frequently than their peers. Exposed youths were twice as likely to be treated for mood disorders and neurotic disorders in specialised healthcare.


The results of the dissertation indicate that prenatal substance exposure alone did not explain challenges at the threshold of adulthood; environmental risks and instability during growth were also significant risk factors.

  • "Maternal substance use during pregnancy was associated with an accumulation of many risk factors. Mothers of youths exposed to substances during pregnancy more frequently had mental health disorders, substance abuse problems, difficulties with financial assistance, and criminality. The accumulation of these risk factors likely explains why most children exposed to substances during pregnancy were placed outside the home in early childhood," Nissinen states.

Factors associated with maternal disadvantage and out-of-home placements were linked to a young person's need for long-term financial support and mood and neurotic disorders. Nissinen did not find a connection to the young person's secondary education; instead, the absence of education was explained by the young person's mental and behavioural disorders. Mental and behavioural disorders in young people were also a significant risk factor for the need for long-term financial assistance.

  • "The challenges studied in the dissertation are recognised risk factors for social exclusion and can increase the risk of challenges later in adulthood. Supporting youths exposed to substances during pregnancy and preventing challenges during adolescence requires early identification of at-risk youth and support that considers individual needs. Prevention requires early intervention in environmental risk factors, in addition to recognising the youth," Nissinen concludes.

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Oct 29, 2023
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