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From substance abuse to self-discovery. Icelands answer.

by PeakCare Qld on 4th April 2017

Home -> Articles -> 2017 -> April -> From substance abuse to self-discovery. Icelands answer.

“We didn’t say to them, you’re coming in for treatment. We said, we’ll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts,”
Professor Harvey Milkman.

20 years ago Iceland was concerned by the increasing substance abuse of teenagers and the resultant social issues. Despite school based drug and alcohol education drug abuse was deemed to be spiralling out of control.

To confront their drug and alcohol abuse, Iceland hired American Psychology Professor Harvey Milkman whose research in New York and later Denver suggested that drugs and alcohol are people’s ways of dealing with stress. Milkman discovered that uppers or downers were selected depending on individual coping mechanisms. He concluded that alcohol and heroin numb the user whilst speed, cocaine and other stimulants are used by those who want to confront issues. It was their style of coping that users were abusing and the addiction was to changes in brain chemistry.

Milkman had previously founded Project Self- Discovery in Denver, an initiative that offered young people alternatives to drugs and crime. Based on the observations that drug education doesn’t work due to many not paying attention to the messages, the aim instead was to offer something better than substance use - natural ‘highs’ and improved opportunities for enjoyment and fulfilment. This program attracted Iceland.

Under a plan called Youth in Iceland, a team of law enforcement officers, community workers, health professionals, policy makers, politicians and teachers worked closely with families on strategies to deviate young people from drug use. All key community stakeholders worked in a holistic manner to develop a number of initiatives, which were adopted alongside the principles of Project Self-Discovery. These included limiting alcohol sales by banning the sale of alcohol to under 20 year olds. Children 13 to 16 years were placed on a 10pm curfew in winter with a midnight curfew in summer. Each local district developed a communal pledge which parents signed. These pledges include parental agreements such as not to buy alcohol for underage children.

Most significantly, social engagement opportunities were offered and parents were encouraged to spend more time with their children. Young people were also directed to do out-of-school activities. Experiences that could either reduce anxiety or create a ‘high’ were identified and delivered. State funding was increased for organised sport, music, art, dance and other clubs. Families were given financial assistance so they could afford recreational opportunities. For example, in Reykjavik, families received a leisure card which assisted in the costs of activities. Residential drug treatment facilities were designed around similar mechanisms including various learning, sporting and creative activities.

Every year, nationwide, Icelandic children and teenagers 10 to 16 years of age take part in a comprehensive survey. Assured of confidentiality, children and young people answer questions about risk and protective factors including: self-esteem; patterns of alcohol or other drug use; family living conditions; neighbourhood characteristics; attitudes about school, leisure time activities; religious affiliations; quality of parental supervision; love and guidance; support from peers; neighbourhood support; anxiety, depression, and suicide. This means up-to-date, reliable data is always available. So too are the opinions and needs of young people. This information allows the alternatives to drug use to be current and relevant to the identified needs and wishes of young people.

In the program’s first 15 years, from 1997 to 2012, the number of children spending time with their parents doubled, as did the number of children and young people doing organised sports. Substance use plummeted. Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teenagers.

Iceland is now exporting its model to around 35 cities. The surveys and programs are tailored to fit local needs and problems. Alcohol and drug use is dropping in participating cities.

Promoting alternative recreational activities, strengthening family ties, improving self-efficacy, building social competence and broadening cultural experiences are the most effective strategies for drug abuse intervention and prevention. This model has demonstrated that young people can turn their lives around when exposed to and engaged in fulfilling alternatives to drugs and crime.

Milkman and his colleagues have endeavoured to encourage implementation in other countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. There are many barriers to this program being adopted that include tiered governments, a focus on law enforcement, and disagreement between key stakeholders about the answers to drug and alcohol intervention and prevention.

Click here to read the full report.

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