Drug use among the young: In Iceland, stakeholders keep ears close to ground

In the last 20 years, cannabis use among young people in Iceland dropped from 17 per cent to 7 per cent. With two-thirds of drug abusers in Singapore under the age of 30, we are studying Iceland's drug prevention methods.

With about two-thirds of new substance abusers here under the age of 30, and more students and professionals caught in recent years, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam warned of a new generation of drug abusers. With Iceland's and Finland's prevention models named as those that Singapore is studying, The Straits Times takes a closer look at the situations in both countries. Focus on prevention and reducing risk factors, and getting parents to play a role

As an Icelandic teen in the late 1980s, Ms Anna Sif Jonsdottir has been in situations where she could have easily got cannabis from friends.

In those days, it was common to be drinking at the age of 14. But it is a different Iceland for the new generation of youth, which her daughter, 17-year-old Anna Dogg Arnarsdottir, belongs to.

Besides taking a breathalyser test before her first high school ball last autumn, there were teachers and about 20 parents present at the event - unlike in her mother's time, when only one teacher was around.

In the past 18 years, Iceland's youth have been using less of substances such as alcohol, cigarettes and cannabis.

In 1998, 42 per cent of those aged 15 or 16 said they had been drunk in the past month. This figure dropped to 5 per cent last year. Similarly, those who said they had used cannabis before dropped from 17 per cent to 7 per cent in this period.

In 2015, teens from Iceland had the lowest substance use among European countries, according to the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs - which collects data from 16-year-old students. Eight per cent of Finnish students and 7 per cent of Swedish students said they had tried cannabis before, but the European average was double, at 16 per cent.

Ms Anna Sif Jonsdottir with her daughter Anna Dogg Arnarsdottir. Iceland's youth have been using less of substances such as alcohol, cigarettes and cannabis. A recreation centre in Reykjavik city, where children can participate in activities such as
Ms Anna Sif Jonsdottir with her daughter Anna Dogg Arnarsdottir. Iceland's youth have been using less of substances such as alcohol, cigarettes and cannabis. ST PHOTO: SEOW BEI YI

 

A MODEL FOR SINGAPORE?

With its results, Iceland's work in curbing youth-related drug problems is being studied by Singapore, which faces a new generation of abusers who are younger, better educated and more susceptible to messages that drugs are not all bad.

So, what is the Icelandic model?

It is based on research, followed by a combination of connecting with youth and encouraging them to have a healthy lifestyle, involving parents in their children's lives, and changing laws affecting teens.

First, it ensures that those who work with youth have up-to-date data on youth trends, collected via regular well-being surveys.

"One of the main pillars of this success is the dialogue that has been created and maintained between researchers, policymakers and people working in the field with children," said Mr Jon Sigfusson, director of the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis (ICSRA).

Every year, the centre surveys youth aged 10 to 19 on issues such as drug use and how they feel about it. Two months later, municipalities receive their results, and those who work with youth can monitor the effectiveness of policies, tackling worrying trends.

"The focus in prevention work has not been on the drugs," said Mr Sigfusson. Instead, Iceland works to strengthen the "preventive factors" that lower children's chances of substance abuse, while reducing "risk factors" that lead them to it.

This change started in the 1990s, when cannabis use and daily smoking among youth rose between 1992 and 1998. "We had been scaring them with the police, showing them pictures of swollen lungs of dead people... This alone was not working," said Mr Sigfusson. "We had to change their environment."

PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT

Second, parents were urged to spend more time with their children. With the government and municipalities reminding parents of the role they can play, asking them to ensure teenagers are home early, change started within families.

While 52 per cent of Iceland's 15- and 16-year-olds said in 2000 that their parents knew where they were in the evenings, ICSRA data found this grew to 75 per cent in 2014.

Since 2008, every school has had to have a parental organisation, or councils with parent representatives, bolstering their involvement in children's lives until high school.

This allowed start-up manager Thorsteinn Viglundsson, 55, to get in contact with the parents of his children's friends. "When something is wrong, I pick up the phone. The kids don't start taking drugs if they know everyone will respond."

The national body for parental organisations, Home and School, introduced agreements that parents in each school could use to collectively decide on rules for their children as well, such as not having unsupervised parties, said its director Hrefna Sigurjonsdottir.

RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES

Third, youth are encouraged to take up organised activities, with families given 35,000 krona (S$470) per year per child for this.

Over time, 15-year-olds' participation in sports, in a sports club four or more times a week, almost doubled - from 23 per cent in 2000 to 43 per cent in 2014.

Ms Anna Sif Jonsdottir with her daughter Anna Dogg Arnarsdottir. Iceland's youth have been using less of substances such as alcohol, cigarettes and cannabis. A recreation centre in Reykjavik city, where children can participate in activities such as
A recreation centre in Reykjavik city, where children can participate in activities such as gymnastics and wrestling. Icelandic youth are encouraged to take up organised activities, with families given 35,000 krona (S$470) per year per child for this. ST PHOTO: SEOW BEI YI

Fourth, changes in legislation have helped to support these moves. Youth below 18 and 20 can no longer buy tobacco and alcohol respectively. Those aged between 13 and 16 cannot be outdoors after 10pm in winter, and midnight in summer.

Children were once considered independent from their parents at 16, being able to take a loan from the bank at that age, but this limit was raised to 18 years old, strengthening parents' authority over teens.

CHALLENGES REMAIN

With changes to rehabilitation too, the number of long-term treatment homes in Iceland's countryside also dropped from 10 to two.

Multi-systemic therapy - which is family-focused and community-based - is now the first line of defence, said Mr Funi Sigurdsson, director of government-run rehabilitation centre Studlar. If that fails, teens may be sent to Studlar or a long-term treatment centre.

This has seen results - waiting time to enter Studlar, which takes in over 40 teens each year, has fallen from a year to two months. But challenges remain - those referred to the centre are heavier users than before.

Stefan (not his real name), for example, smoked cannabis daily to numb his "bad feelings". He told The Straits Times he had been physically abused by his mother since he was five. Others in his family took the drug too.

Now 15, the Icelandic teen was picked up, drunk and under the influence of LSD, last December. He has been in Studlar six times since.

Iceland is also not exempt from trends such as liberal attitudes towards cannabis. As teens make their way to recreation centres after school, traces of drug use remain.

University of Iceland research scientist Gudberg Jonsson pointed out empty joints by a bench in Reykjavik city. Teens remove the tobacco to fill them with cannabis.

Cannabis use may have dropped for youth, but Bill (not his real name), who tried it at age 19, considers it less harmful than alcohol, which he links more with violent behaviour. He added that he knows the risk of addiction to cannabis, which is illegal in Iceland: "People can get really mentally dependent on it, and I guess it's my job to try and not become like that."


In Finland, fighting drug abuse a coordinated effort

Mr Christian Wentzel, executive manager of Children of the Station. The group befriends young people at malls, on the streets and outside railway stations where they loiter. It also reaches out to suburban youth from at-risk neighbourhoods via a bus
Mr Christian Wentzel, executive manager of Children of the Station. The group befriends young people at malls, on the streets and outside railway stations where they loiter. It also reaches out to suburban youth from at-risk neighbourhoods via a bus and vans. ST PHOTO: SEOW BEI YI

It is 4pm on a Wednesday in suburban Helsinki, and around 10 children are gathered at a youth centre, playing video games or chatting. A pool table stands in what feels like a cosy living room, and a dance studio lies farther in the compound.

This centre in the suburb of Pasila is one of three nearby offering free activities for young people, said Ms Elisa Prepula, 47, area coordinator for Klaari - the city's unit for coordinating substance-abuse prevention work among its youth. There are over 40 youth centres in Helsinki.

Such centres are one of its many community partners - which include the police, schools and parishes - in disseminating the substance-abuse prevention message.

READ MORE HERE


Ex-addict tells parents: Get child into safe home

For most of his life, Mr Nelson Cook took drug after drug. It was only about six years ago that he became determined to quit drugs.
For most of his life, Mr Nelson Cook took drug after drug. It was only about six years ago that he became determined to quit drugs. ST PHOTO: SEOW BEI YI

Troubled by his parents' divorce and often left home alone as a teen, Nelson Cook started drinking with a group of older boys at the age of 12.

The next year, he tried cannabis and, at age 15, psychedelics. It was the start of a lifelong struggle with addiction.

Mr Cook, who grew up in Helsinki and is now 46, told The Straits Times that looking back, he recalls receiving drug education as a student. "I remember a policeman saying he knows of users who ruined their mental health because of drugs. The warnings didn't sink in."

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Parents play vital role, says counsellor

When she moved to a different part of town with her family at age 14, Emma (not her real name) found herself bullied at school because of her elder sister's disabilities.

Unable to tell her parents the full story, she turned to cannabis.

"She told me that the first time she smoked, she felt good. She didn't have to worry about a thing - about protecting her sister, or about how she was feeling," said counsellor Gudrun Agustsdottir, 57.

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S'pore 'may need more stratified approach'

Experts here say regular data collection on well-being, like what Iceland does, could help improve drug prevention strategies, but Singapore may need a more stratified approach due to its population size and diversity.

About 20 countries have tried, or are taking steps, to implement the Icelandic model of drug prevention, said Mr Jon Sigfusson, director of the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis.

He believes the model can easily be replicated worldwide, but a potential obstacle is some local governments' unwillingness to acknowledge problems in their communities that need to be tackled.

READ MORE HERE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'In Iceland, stakeholders keep ears close to ground'. Print Edition | Subscribe