“Any college kid could say: why do they start? Well, there’s availability, they’re risk-takers, alienation, maybe some depression. But why do they continue? So, I got to the question about the threshold for abuse and the lights went on – that’s when I had my version of the ‘aha’ experience: they could be on the threshold for abuse before they even took the drug, because it was their STYLE OF COPING that they were abusing.”
~Dr. Harvey Milkman, Psychology Professor, Reykjavík University
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, teenagers in Iceland drank and used other addictive substances heavier than most of their European peers. Today, Icelandic teens are the cleanest-living on the continent.
And here’s the good news – if America can adopt similar initiatives here, millions of teens could benefit both physically and psychologically.
Statistics about Teen Substance Use in Iceland Tell a Story of Success
Comparing 1998 and 2016, statistics show that the rates of alcohol, drug, and tobacco use among teenagers in Iceland has fallen sharply:
- 15/16 year-olds reporting past-month use of alcohol – 42% then, 5% now
- Cannabis use – 17% versus 7%
- Everyday tobacco use – 23% versus 3%
Now, let’s compare that to American 10th-graders. Within the past month,
- 20% drank alcohol
- 14% used marijuana
- 5% smoked cigarettes
- 11% used electronic cigarettes
What Is Iceland Doing Differently to Curb Teenage Substance Abuse?
Iceland’s success might seem radical in the US, but the measures enacted are evidence-based. Some pragmatists might simply call youth in Iceland “enforced common sense”.
If a society wants to prevent its teenagers from taking drugs or drinking, give them something better to do. Put another way, give teens – with their still-developing, impressionable brains – a better way to cope with their lives.
Professor Milkman says, “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?”
After conducting several surveys during the early 1990s, researchers were able to identify several protective factors that could help Icelandic teens stay off drugs:
- Participating in organized activities (especially sports) several times a week
- Spending time with their parents during the week – QUANTITY of time was a bigger factor than the occasional attempts at “quality time”
- Feeling like their school officials and teachers cared about them
- Spending more time at home – in effect, a curfew
Can the Success Be Duplicated HERE?
There are societal differences between Iceland and the US, so there is bound to be resistance. But the results of the Youth in Iceland can’t be dismissed lightly, and there are other benefits, as well. As the program has spread, cities that have joined the Youth in Europe campaign are seeing reductions in teen suicide and youth crime.
Parental involvement is key – parents are encouraged to spend as much time with their children as possible, talk with their children about their lives, know who their friends are, not allow unsupervised parties, and keep them home in the evenings.
Keeping teens involved with healthy diversions – organized sports, art, music, and other activities and clubs – fulfills their need for stimulation while fostering adaptive brain changes that can provide protection from substance use.
Even if these measures are unlikely to be adopted at a federal or state level, they can be initiated at a city-level – and even community-level – if the various parties cooperate. In Iceland, there is a strong relationship between the government, law enforcement, citizens, teachers, and mental health professionals as they all work together for the betterment of the society as a whole.
Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir, Iceland’s 2016 Woman of the Year, says:
“We learned through the studies that we need to create circumstances in which kids can lead healthy lives, and they do not need to use substances, because life is fun, and they have plenty to do – and they are supported by parents who will spend time with them.”
The best thing you can do for your teen is help them avoid intoxicating substances in the first place. But if your child is already abusing alcohol or drugs, you need professional help if they are to have their optimal chance at returning to a healthy, sober life.
The good news for parents located in the United States — you don’t have to travel across the globe to find help for your teen. Contact Teensavers located in the heart of Orange County, California and get information that will teach your teen how to successfully manage their disease of addiction.
By Albert Fontenot