Author: Dave Barrie, We are With You, Dundee
In December 2020, the most recent drug-related deaths figures were released. Every year we get a national announcement of the number of people who have lost their lives from drug overdoses. In 2019, we lost 1,264 people in Scotland and 72 in Dundee. To have 72 families losing a loved one, in one year and in one city, is heart-breaking. For a country the size of Scotland, this is devastating. If these numbers are not an argument to invest in prevention, then I don’t know what is. On top of this, there were 1020 alcohol-related deaths in Scotland in 2019. Anyone can experience addiction and addiction holds no prejudice. We know that the later in life that we start to use alcohol or drugs, the less of a negative impact they have on us. Therefore, a later start is a protective factor against developing problems with substances in adulthood. Scotland needs to radically invest much further upstream to better engage our young people, our families, our schools, and the community.
Working with the Youth in Iceland Model (now Planet Youth) group in Dundee has increased optimism and hope. We have been examining a model of prevention that appears to work. Iceland moved from being one of the worst in the world to one of the best for teenage substance use. It has not been quick or easy in Iceland, but they have succeeded, and they continue to invest in their model of prevention to keep building a country that has very low numbers of young people using any drugs or alcohol, often starting at a much later age than they had in the past. Just before the pandemic, a small group of us were lucky to participate on a field trip to Reykjavik, Iceland. Whilst there we met young people, family members, politicians, academics, and a whole range of people from all over the world at the yearly Planet Youth conference. There are 32 countries who are delivering the Planet Youth model, with many more in the process of developing it. The evidence was strong from the academics, but more importantly from the young people that we spoke to. They told us that using alcohol, smoking and taking drugs are not seen as being cool and holding off until late teens is now much more common.
It has taken Iceland 20 years to get where they are, but the improvements started much quicker than that, with marked reductions of substance use seen after the first few years. Everyone takes responsibility for the problem, from the highest politician, to the carers at home, to the young person. Information is collected every year from young people at high school using a survey. This information is processed and brought back to a community group at the school and is carefully looked at. Areas of risk are identified and explored as well as potential solutions and protective factors. An example of a risk area could be not knowing any of your child’s friends or their families. A potential solution or protective factor for this could then be meeting your child’s friends, knowing their names, building some sort of relationship with them, meeting some of their parents/carers for coffee, or even a hello on the phone. Another protective factor is spending at least one hour every day with your children. The information is then shared through different networks, schools, families, social media, newsletters and community meetings and is taken as evidence-based advice and guidance. Over time, more risks are identified and shared which continues to support the community, for example: unsupervised time without any adults where alcohol is used; overnights where it is unclear how much adult supervision is present; parties where alcohol and drugs are available and potentially used; screen time; amount of sleep; and bedtimes.
In Iceland, one of the biggest protective factors has been the heavily resourced, alternative activities. Every young person gets a sports pass allowing them free entry into activities of their choice. This can range from football, drama, dance, swimming, gymnastics, cycling, athletics, music, etc. There is something to suit every young person in Iceland. This is supported and governed by central body and some of it is subsidised by the government. There is a high standard of trained and professional workers and activities are led by professional coaches and skilled youth workers. Young people can go to groups every day and well into the evening. What would young people prefer? Swimming at the pool at 9pm on a Saturday night with friends whom they know, or meeting in the woods with older kids and no adults present, where alcohol, smoking, and high-risk activities are more likely?
I have enjoyed every minute of being involved in this project. The time is right for Scotland to focus on upstream prevention. The Planet Youth approach works, and we are in a fantastic position to implement this model here in Dundee and potentially across the county.