Putting a new spin on drug prevention programmes, Icelandic programme Planet Youth is helping Australia formulate a long-term plan to support teenagers – one that could improve the lives of an entire generation.
Australia’s Alcohol and Drug Foundation is trialling a revolutionary Icelandic program in an effort to curb the alcohol and drug abuse levels in teenagers. Hive Life sat down with the CEO of the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) Dr Erin Lalor and Planet Youth’s Research Director Dr Inga Dora Sigfusdóttir to find out the secret to the program’s success.
In 1999, Iceland had one of the highest rates of alcohol abuse amongst its teenage population – an estimated 56% of their Year 10 Students (aged 16) were reported to be regularly and problematically smoking and drinking. By 2015, they had managed to bring that national average down to just 9%, thanks to radical policy changes introduced via their stringent Planet Youth Drug and Alcohol Prevention Program. So successful has the programme been, that the rest of the world has taken notice – it is currently being trialled in over 20 countries and rolled out through Australia. As the fourth biggest consumer of alcohol in the world, it’s a strategy that Dr Erin Lalor, CEO of the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, sees as sorely needed, talking Hive Life through a new direction in drug prevention being trialled as we speak. “AoD [Alcohol and Other Drugs] are the greatest challenges that face Australia at a community level. Over 6500 people in Australia die every year from AoD and it costs us over AUD 55 billion. I know that we can do more to stop them.”
The Icelandic scheme starts out differently to regular, widely adopted drug prevention programmes. Instead of focusing their efforts in the classroom, they take it back to the community level. “The biggest change that Planet Youth introduces to Australia’s AoD prevention efforts is their Youth Survey, which will provide really high-quality data to help communities choose their responses,” says Erin. That survey is used to identify the key protective factors that may trigger a child to engage in AoD abuse, before providing a data-driven, primary prevention model that focuses on long term intervention. “The key to success is to create healthy communities and by that, get healthy individuals,” Inga has said. In Iceland, this meant the introduction of Youth Centres (where children can sign up for after-school organised activities such as football etc.), curfews and nightly parental patrols. Emphasis is put on providing children with alternatives – activities, sports, increased parental involvement – rather than on just stopping them from engaging in drugs and alcohol in the first place.
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To outsiders, these measures may seem extreme, but for Inga, a Professor at Reykjavik University and Columbia, as well as the Scientific Director of the Icelandic Centre for Social Research & Analysis, drastic measures were what was needed to actually make a difference. “When we are dealing with community issues, we cannot just create policies focused on a single area of life such as schools or families. We focus on support and informal social control. These measures are more like a fridge magnet of guidance rules that are on every refrigerator in Iceland to help parents make these rules a standard for every household. And, if a child is outside after curfew drinking, a parent in the neighbourhood will pick him/her up, talk to the child and drive them home,” she says of how it works in practice. “We won’t do anything unless we have research for it. What we have done is to come up with a toolbox of things that have been showing good results. We are bringing that to other places so they can figure out something that could work in their community. ”
The pilot trial in Australia, run through the existing Local Drug Action Team Program and funded under the Australian Government’s National Ice Action Strategy, will take place over two and a half years in select locations, and is already well underway. “We have already run the survey last November and each community will choose its own response when they see the data. We will run workshops in February,” says Erin. Unlike previous drug and alcohol prevention programs, no focus is put on educating children on the effects of substance abuse. “It has been shown in research that education about substance use can increase use,” explains Inga. “I was a little bit of a delinquent myself, and when former drug addicts came into the school to tell us their story, I remember sitting at the back of the classroom watching them, and it increased my interest in drugs instead of decreasing it. I would reluctantly recommend education, but at least do other things at the same time.”
With promising results already visible in Iceland (where alcohol and drug rates in teenagers are now amongst some of the lowest in Europe), the programme has high hopes that its model can have a lasting positive effect on an entire generation. “20 years ago, we said, ‘What adults do – that’s their problem,” says Inga. “We’re responsible for the kids. However, the beautiful thing about the model is that we found AoD use follows cohorts. So, if you reach a 13-year-old cohort today, in 10 years’ time, you will have 23-year-olds using much less AoD. We just have to be patient.” Whether you’re taking the short, medium or long-term view, however, the goals are the same: to steer people clear of a hugely destructive cycle of alcohol and drugs, changing their lives from the outset. “No parent wants their kid to become a substance user. And, when you ask a kid, you rarely get them saying they want to become one,” says Inga. There’s an opportunity here to take something really different and apply it to a country that’s huge and geographically diverse with big distances between communities and which, at times, has a big struggle with AoD amongst young people,” furthers Erin. “We’ve got an opportunity to really make a difference.”