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What Can Parents Learn From The Icelandic Model of Preventing Drug Abuse

February 24, 2017

What can parents learn from the Icelandic model of preventing teen drug abuse?

The current state of teen drug abuse and addiction in Iceland is extremely positive. In 2016, only 7 percent of teens report ever having used cannabis before, which is down from 17 percent in 1998. The numbers aren’t just trending down for marijuana use: only 5 percent of teens in 2016 Iceland reported being drunk at some point in the previous month, which is a huge drop from 42 percent in 1998. One of the ways that Iceland has supported such robust change in teen behavior related to drugs and alcohol is by offering teens other ways to get “high.”

The case for creating natural highs

The Icelandic approach to preventing teen drug and alcohol abuse actually has roots in work done by an American psychologist named Harvey Milkman. Milkman interned during the 1970s, when the drug revolution in America was in full swing. He grew interested in why people chose various types of drugs, even writing his doctoral thesis on the subject.

Milkman concluded from his research that people chose different types of drugs for some obvious reasons: opportunity and availability are obvious factors in why a teen might choose one substance over another. But he also noted that the type of drug and its impact on brain chemistry played a role in choice. Those who were more likely to confront issues head on or seek thrills chose amphetamines. Individuals who were more likely to hide from issues or want to numb themselves from the world chose drugs such as heroin.

Continuing with this line of research, Milkman concluded that individuals sometimes become addicted to the change in brain chemistry — not necessarily the physical drug. They continue to seek the drug to get the behavioral change; this research is widely accepted today and at The Teen Treatment Center, we often treat drug abuse with behavioral addiction in mind.

For Milkman, this conclusion led to another thought: What if there was a social movement that supported the development of natural highs? What if teens seeking thrills or downtime could get that specific type of high from their own brain chemistry while performing safe or even productive activities?

Iceland’s boost in recreational offerings for teens

Milkman’s research and ideas won him a grant in America, and he used the money to start Project Self-Discovery. His team started teaching art, dance, martial arts and other programs, providing experiences that could induce a natural rush, reduce anxiety or teach teens to cope with life without drugs.

It’s this approach that Iceland has taken over the past few decades and what many credit with the substantially reduced teen drug and alcohol problems in the country. Recreational activities and infrastructure were provided; after school, many Icelandic teens spend time in extracurricular classes, clubs or activities. They draw, play sports, dance, learn martial arts, participate in drama, cook or learn important life skills. For many, these activities provide the natural high and stress release that might lead to drug abuse absent other options.

How can parents take advantage of this method?

American parents might not have the same options, and your teens might not have access to all of the opportunities that are available in Iceland. As a parent, though, you can seek ways to interest your child in activities that generate a natural high or stress relief.

  • Find out what activities are available in schools and encourage your teen to get involved
  • Be available when needed to support activities by driving teens and friends to and from meetings or cheering teens on during events
  • Check out local organizations that offer free or low-cost activities that might interest your teen
  • Encourage your teen to take on appropriate levels of responsibility; some teens who aren’t interested in sports or after school clubs might enjoy volunteering with children, local zoos or the library
  • Don’t push too hard and look for signs that your teen is overwhelmed with activities, volunteering, school work and other obligations

In addition to encouraging your teen to get involved, consider getting involved yourself. Another reason many experts believe Icelandic teen drug abuse has dropped so much is that teens spend time with their parents and family. In 2012, almost half of teens age 15 to 16 said they spent time with their parents regularly on weekdays, which was up 23 percent from 1997.

It might sound like a cliché, but having regular family dinner — at the table as opposed to in front of the television — can be a powerful and positive habit to create. You can also get involved with your kids in activities, spend time outdoors together or watch some of the same shows and talk about them.

Natural highs, social activities and time with family can go a long way in preventing teen drug abuse. Even Iceland doesn’t have a zero teen drug use statistic, though, and any teenager can fall into addiction or a substance abuse disorder. If you think your teen is struggling with drugs or alcohol, call us today at (844)319-5239 for information on how you can help them seek treatment.

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