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Iceland has figured out how to stop drug abuse among young people, but the rest of the world will not listen.

 Image: Dreamstime (with licence)

This is stated in an article on Mosaic Science. The points in the article are very interesting, and here you get a summary of them. 


A large-scale development of activities for children and young people

One of those they interview is Gudberg Jónsson who is an Icelandic psychologist, and Harvey Milkman who is an American professor who lectures part-time in Reykjavik. Jónsson says:

20 years ago, Icelandic youth were among those who drank the most and most heavily in Europe.

You could not walk the streets of Reykjavik on a Friday night without feeling unsafe, Milkman adds. Hordes of teenagers were very drunk.

But a lot has happened since then, and the article highlights an extensive investment that has been going on in the small island state; which, among other things, has included a large-scale development of activities for children and young people. 


Formidable decline in drug use among young people

graph milkman

Figure: Huffington Post

And this has had its effect. In the article they write:

Today, Icelandic youth are at the very top when it comes to drug freedom compared to young people in other European countries. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who have been intoxicated during the last month has dropped from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. The percentage of those who have used cannabis has fallen from 17 to 7%, and the number who smoke cigarettes daily have dropped from 23 to just 3%.

This is a formidable improvement. Professor Harvey Milkman believes that if the "Icelandic model" had been adopted in other countries, it would have benefited millions of children, with both mental and physical benefits.


A behavioral perspective on addiction

Harvey Milkman talks about his own research on drug abuse. He says that starting with drugs is, among other things, about accessibility, risk-seeking, alienation, and depression - but that the big question is why some people continue to get high.

An important point is that humans can become addicted to changes in brain chemistry, which can be achieved in countless ways. Thus, drugs are just noe of what people can become addicted to.

People can become addicted to alcohol, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine - anything! The idea of ​​a behavioral perspective on addiction became our trademark, says Milkman.

 Based on such an understanding of substance abuse, the idea came:

Why not create a social movement around natural emotional "peaks"; about getting people to get "high" on their own brain chemistry ... without the devastating effects of drugs?


Provided alternatives to intoxication and crime

As early as the 1990s, Milkman had tried such work in the United States, related to offering young people a natural experience of becoming "high" without having to resort to drugs or crime. Here, young people from the age of 14 were referred by teachers and other concerned adults, even though they did not think they had any problems. Milkman says:

We did not tell them that you are coming here for treatment. We said: We want to teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts.

The idea was that these courses would promote changes in the brain chemistry of the young people, and to give them what they needed to master life: Some of the young people needed activities that helped them alleviate anxiety, while others needed activities that gave them a kick.

At the same time, the young people received help to cope with life, with a focus on how they thought about themselves and life, and how they interacted with other people.


From treatment to prevention

These principles were used in Iceland in the 1990s in connection with the establishment of a treatment center for young people with substance abuse problems, where Harvey Milkman was a consultant, and where also psychologist Gudberg Jónsson was given a central role early on.

But a young Icelandic researcher, Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir, wanted to test whether the same principles could also be used in a preventive program.

The idea was to create a program that provided children and young people with healthy alternatives to drugs - not as a treatment for children with established problems - but to prevent children from begin to drink or use drugs.


Alarming findings and the program that did not work

Their surveys in the 1990s showed alarming findings: A high proportion of young people drank and used drugs.

But the study also gave other nuances: They found that there were some very clear differences between young people who got drunk and those who did not. Important protective factors were participation in organized activities three or more times a week (primarily sports), total time spent with parents during the week, feeling taken care of at school, and not being out late at night.

At that time, many drug prevention programs had been tried in the United States, mainly programs that informed about the negative effects of drug use - but these worked poorly.


A very ambitious and comprehensive effort

Therefore, it was now decided that they had to do something new - and a large-scale effort was underway. Here are some key elements of what was done:


  1. New laws

    The laws were changed. It was made illegal to buy cigarettes under the age of 18, and to buy alcohol under the age of 20. Alcohol and tobacco advertising became illegal. A law was even passed banning children aged 13 to 16 from being outdoors after 22 pm in the winter and after midnight in the summer.

  2. Involvement of parents

    Extensive work was done aimed at parents, including the opportunity to sign an agreement that the parents should follow, which included not allowing the children to have parties without supervision, and not buying alcohol for minors. Such agreements were important in relation to taking the life of a common argument from young people who want to rush: "Well, everyone else is allowed."

  3. Huge investment in organized sports and culture

    Not least, increased funding was also given to organized sports, music, art, dance, and other clubs to give children alternative ways to become part of a group, and to feel good, than by using alcohol and drugs. Among other things, a "Leisure Card" is given to families with children - one card per child - which includes a large sum of money annually that can only be used for leisure activities.

  4. Annual surveys

    And finally: the investigations have continued. Every year, almost all children in Iceland respond to these, which means that information about the situation is constantly updated.


Many positive effects 

In addition to having significantly reduced drug use among young people, there have also been other positive effects of this effort. 

Twice as many young people report that they often or daily spend time with their parents on weekdays. And the proportion of young people who participate in organized activity three or four times a week has increased from 24 to 42 percent. 

Álfgeir Kristjánsson tells:

Protective factors have increased, risk factors have decreased, and drug use has decreased - and this has been more consistent in Iceland than in any other European country.

Although it may be difficult to prove that these effects come from the program, there is still much to suggest this.

And although it may be difficult for other countries to do exactly the same as in Iceland, the author of the article still asks:

Will no other country conclude that the benefits (of doing as Iceland) are worth the cost?



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