Nursing students appalled by minister's call to expel substance abusers
A proposal by Minister of Education Sari Sarkomaa (Nat. Coalition Party) to expel students who have substance abuse problems from social and health care institutions of education has shocked Finnish nursing students.
The minister says that schools should be able to expel students whose dependence on intoxicants might endanger patient safety when they are at work.
The students feel that denying those students who have a substance abuse problem the right to study would be short-sighted, and would only sweep problems under the rug.
"Wouldn't there be an obligation to guide a student with a bad substance abuse problem into treatment?" Aki Rautiainen, a student at the Helsinki City College of Social and Health Care (HESOTE) asks.
Under the law, a student in vocational training can lose the right to study if he or she is incapable of working in the profession itself. In practice, this rule is applied only to musicians and air traffic controllers, but Sarkomaa wants to extend the practice.
At present, educational institutions cannot test a student for drugs without the student's permission. Referrals to treatment are possible only if the student is intoxicated at school.
On the practical level, counsellors try to encourage students who are not considered suitable for the profession to drop out.
"Expulsion would be resorted to only when all other means are used. Referral to treatment continues to be the primary option. But if a student behaves violently, for instance, this method needs to be available", Sarkomaa observes.
Timo Lankinen, head of the vocational education unit of the Ministry of Education, says that even in the future, expulsion would require solid evidence - in practice, a drug test.
At HESOTE, there were few students on Thursday who would have come across substance abuse problems in their study or work environments.
One 20-year-old woman mentioned a nursing school in another city where she had worked, where a nurse had stolen morphine from the work place and lost all possibilities of working in that city.
"Use of intoxicants is not suitable for this work. At this job you have to be especially clear-headed, but who is to say who has a drug problem and who hasn't", says Mirka, 24.
There has been no research into the extent of drug problems among nursing students. At large institutions individual students are sent to get treatment every year.
However, the National Authority for Medicolegal Affairs (TEO) is occasionally approached about how to deal with students with an apparent substance abuse problem, says TEO Director-General Jukka Männistö.
Concerned teachers have asked TEO if there are ways of getting rid of students who are not suitable for the profession.
"As supervisory officials we cannot take issue with the suitability of a student who has not graduated."
The educational institutions could end up with the decisive role. However, they would not necessarily relish the prospect of taking on the role of a judge.
"Although some people are never cured, many do get better, and are good workers after that. Shutting them out of the profession is excessive", says Irmeli Männisto of the Oulu Vocational College.
"Often these people notice themselves that studying is not working, and they end it themselves. If these kinds of people were to be expelled, they should at least be guaranteed further treatment."
Hilkka Mustonen, a guidance counsellor at the Helsinki City College of Social and Health Care notes that intoxicants are not the only problem. Students also suffer from mental health problems which make study more difficult.