Iceland Knows How To Stop Teen Substance Abuse But The Rest Of The World Isn’t Listening
According to an Icelandic psychologist, Gudberg Jonsson, just twenty years ago Icelandic teens were among the heaviest drinking youths in all of Europe. Apparently you couldn’t even walk downtown in Reykjavik on a Friday night without being bothered by rowdy teenagers getting wasted. He says it felt unsafe.
Iceland now tops the European table for the cleanest living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-old teens who had been drunk in the previous month dropped from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. The percentage of cannabis users has even dropped from 17% to 7%, and those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23% to 3%.
This country has been able to achieve such a successful turnaround thanks to what might best be described as enforced common sense. “This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen,” says Milkman. “I’m just so impressed how well it’s working.”
Milkman helped develop the idea that people were addicted to changes in the brain chemistry, rather than the drug itself. “People can get addicted to drink, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine – whatever. The idea of behavioural addiction became our trademark,” he says.
This is what spawned another idea: “Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry – because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness – without the deleterious effects of drugs?”
By 1992, Milkman’s team in Denver had been granted $1.2 million from the government to fund Project Self-Discovery, which offered teenagers natural high alternatives to drugs and various crimes.
“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.” The idea was that these different classes catering to the interests of many teenagers could get the teens excited and provide alterations in their brain chemistry. It would keep them busy for one, but also it would keep them interested and in the learning phase. Being addicted to dance is obviously a much better alternative than being addicted to drugs or alcohol.
At the same time, teens also received life-skills training, which focused on having more positive thoughts about themselves, their lives, and how they were interacting with others. “The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information,” Milkman says.
Possibly the most important step to this plan was increasing state funding for organized sport, music, art, dance, and other clubs. This allowed kids more ways to be able to bond with their peers and feel good and have fun, without resorting to drugs and alcohol. Lower income families also received a bonus for each child so that they too, could participate in these activities.
What Was the Outcome?
Between 1997 and 2012, the percentage of kids aged 15 and 16 who reported always spending time with their parents nearly doubled, increasing from 23% to 43%. The percentage of teens who participated in organized sports at least four times a week increased from 23% to 42%. Use of cigarettes, cannabis, and alcohol, on the other hand, all plummeted.
“Although this cannot be shown in the form of a causal relationship – which is a good example of why primary prevention methods are sometimes hard to sell to scientists – the trend is very clear,” says Alfgeir Kristjansson, who worked on the data. “Protective factors have gone up, risk factors down, and substance use has gone down – and more consistently in Iceland than in any other European country.” …
Makes sense doesn’t it.
Unfortunately: “Possibly the most important step to this plan was increasing state funding for organized sport, music, art, dance, and other clubs”. That’s never going to happen in National’s NZ.