How Iceland Got Teens To Say No To Drugs And How We Can Too

Iceland: a country full of mountains, hills, valleys, glaciers… and the cleanest living teens in Europe. What constitutes a “clean living teen” exactly? Well, teens that had not been drunk in the past month, ever used cannabis, and don’t smoke cigarettes daily earn a gold star of cleaning living in Iceland. Don’t believe me? Think that in the world we live in it is virtually impossible for teens to say no to drugs and alcohol?

Think again.

To quote Peter Pan, “All you need is faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust”… OR increased state funding for organized sport, music, art, dance and other clubs.

Psychologists found that youth could be on the threshold for substance abuse before they even tried drugs or alcohol. How? Because it was not the eventual usage of substances that created abuse in youth. It was the style of coping that they were abusing.

You have kids out here who are more into a rush than they are into stimulant drugs. Their brains however, cannot discern the difference between the rush they get from stealing a car, and the rush they get from using stimulants like cocaine, nicotine, or methamphetamine.  Activity is increased in their brains either way.

The fact is, people can get addicted to virtually anything – video games, shopping, alcohol, calories, drugs – but if you take the time like Iceland did to look at the idea of behavioral addiction, that’s when I believe you really start cooking with gas (Do people still use that expression? Did I just age myself? Probably…).

So Iceland started thinking up ways to create a wide spread social movement in their country that gave their citizens natural highs instead.

Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor, spearheaded this idea and took in referrals from teachers, school nurses and counsellors. These educators and health care professionals referred teens from the age of 14 up that did not see themselves as needing treatment, but who had problems with drugs or petty crime.

“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 could provide a variety of alterations in the kids’ brain chemistry, and give them what they needed to cope better with life: some might crave an experience that could help reduce anxiety; others may be after a rush.

Speaking personally, I can absolutely see how this method is working. I travelled to Iceland just last month to do a ten-day journey around the country, and I can’t recall ever seeing any teens walking around looking for something to do – even in the smaller, more remote towns. Now that I know about this Youth in Iceland method, it could have been because they were out participating in activities. Liquor stores were very rare, and there are no advertisements for alcohol or tobacco anywhere. (Though there were countless advertisements for pizza. I never knew how easily accessible pizza was in Iceland until this trip)

This also makes me wonder if Iceland’s significant rise in the percentage of kids who take part in organized sport may be bringing benefits beyond raising healthier children. Could it, for instance, have contributed to Iceland’s crushing defeat of England in the Euro 2016 football championship? Or what about the success in music, such as “Of Monsters and Men” [an indie folk-pop group from Reykjavik]. These are young people who have been pushed into organized work that they may not have otherwise thought of participating in.

Clearly, if Canada implemented this model, we would face challenges that Iceland did not.  33.3 million people versus 330,000. 434 youth gangs versus virtually none. Around 7000 homeless young people versus a handful. But the data from other parts of Europe does show that the Icelandic model can work in very different cultures. Moreover, we all know that with the ever-growing Opioid crisis we are facing as a country, that the need is high.

Youth in Iceland has spawned a much larger movement. From it, Youth in Europe has been born and bred as well. What’s to say we can’t create a Youth in Canada? The success rate and proof is simple. Circumstances need to be created for kids to lead healthy lives. They don’t need to use substances, because life as a kid should be – and is – fun.

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