As the U.S. largely ignores an epidemic opioid crisis fueled by the pharmaceutical industry and a rush of available heroin resulting from the war on drugs, Iceland is receiving international acclaim for its approaches in helping to keep teens off drugs.
Primarily addressing the issue of underage drinking and binge-drinking, a need for a new plan to confront teen substance abuse in Iceland has achieved extraordinary results, turning around the dangerous trend. Employing both a ‘radical and evidence-based’ approach, community leaders first looked at stress as a causal factor in substance abuse, then looked at why people become addicts, then offered practical solutions which have thus far worked.
“Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 per cent in 1998 to 5 per cent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 per cent to 7 per cent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 per cent to just 3 per cent.” [Source]
What is the Icelandic solution? Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches for part of the year at Reykjavik University, wrote his doctoral dissertation on drug use as a form of stress reduction, concluding that teens were surprisingly likely to turn to either amphetamines or heroin, depending on how they chose to deal with stress. “Heroin users wanted to numb themselves; amphetamine users wanted to actively confront it,” says Milkman.
While at Metropolitan State College in Denver, Colorado, Milkman pursued the idea that people are largely developing behavioral addictions and becoming addicted to changes in brain chemistry, the sort of thing that happens when a person experiences the rush of something risky, dangerous or exciting.
Building on this philosophy, his team developed programs to teach kids other things which can produce dramatic changes in brain chemistry, providing access to ecstatic experiences such as dance, music, art, hip-hop and martial arts, activities which also teach self-confidence and self-mastery.
“Young people aren’t hanging out in the park right now, Gudberg explains, because they’re in after-school classes in these facilities, or in clubs for music, dance or art. Or they might be on outings with their parents.” [Source]
Spending time speaking in Iceland won him the support of community members and even the government itself, leading to nationally funded and implemented programs.
“State funding was increased for organised sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group, and to feel good, rather than through using alcohol and drugs, and kids from low-income families received help to take part.” [Source]
Another major factor in this success story is the enactment of child curfew laws, rejected by most other nations, which legislated that children between the ages of 13 and 16 were not allowed outside alone after 10pm in winter months, and after midnight in the summer time.
The end result has been the development of a new generation of teens who spend more time with their parents and families than before, and whom have less access to drugs and alcohol, while also have much greater access to programs which involve them in healthy, exciting activities.
Stress in America is at an all-time high, especially for America’s youth, which may help to explain why so many kids are turning to prescription pills and street drugs, and without a more thoughtful and holistic approach to confronting this problem, rates of teen substance abuse are unlikely to decline any time soon.
“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 by how well it is working.” ~Harvey Milkman
The psychological and physical well-being of our children is of utmost importance, and in this way, America is greatly failing its most important resource, youth.
Drugs are not a criminal problem as perceived in the United States, and you simply cannot SWAT raid American families into ending addiction and the American drug crisis, as there are much larger personal and political forces at play. While we continue to ignore the crisis of drugs with American youth, we are desperate for new approaches, and this example from Iceland may help broaden our perspective of the possible.
by Alex Pietrowski