Maine is failing to prevent young people from using dangerous drugs and alcohol. One Mainer a day now dies from drug overdose, and 90 percent of people who meet the medical definition of addiction started drinking, smoking or using other drugs before age 18.
Yet Maine schools, the place where young Mainers spend most of their time, are at a loss for what to do.
“This is an area that I feel we have failed in,” wrote a principal in northern Maine in an anonymous BDN Maine Focus survey given to all public school principals in August and September 2016. Many of the 229 schools who filled out the online survey shared this sentiment.
And their attempts at prevention show they largely don’t know how to keep kids from using drugs and alcohol, the survey revealed. The two most common prevention activities schools cited were: weaving substance use prevention lessons into their health class curriculum and holding one-off events such as assemblies. Experts say these types of interventions do not work.
Maine schools, communities, parents and government should take a cue from Iceland, a country that dramatically turned around its rates of teen substance use in under two decades thanks to a radical shift in focus. The country turned away from talking about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and instead put its energy into supporting healthy alternatives to drugs — or “natural highs.”
In the 1990s, the rates of teen substance use in the Nordic island nation of 320,000 were the highest in Europe. Today they are the lowest. In 2016, just 5 percent of Icelandic teens had used alcohol in the past 30 days, compared with 42 percent in 1998. Over the same time period, daily cigarette smoking among the island’s teens dropped from 23 percent to 3 percent.
Experts say this dramatic turnaround is largely thanks to a national program Iceland introduced in 1998 that focused on promoting healthy relationships and safe activities.
Iceland increased state funding for extracurricular activities; encouraged greater bonds between parents and schools by developing social events for parents; supported both strenuous national data collection and also local reflection and action on the data; increased the age limit at which youth could buy alcohol and tobacco; and forbid younger teens from staying outside past 10 p.m. in the winter and midnight in summer, according to an article recently published in the online science magazine Mosaic.
The results are staggering. Between 1997 and 2012, the percentage of kids aged 15 and 16 who reported often or almost always spending time with their parents on weekdays doubled — from 23 to 46 percent. The percentage who participated in organized sports at least four times a week increased from 24 to 42 percent. At the same time, cigarette smoking, drinking and marijuana use in this age group plummeted.
The “Iceland Model,” as it is now called, has since been replicated in 35 cities across 17 countries, with similar rates of success, according to Youth in Europe, an Iceland-based organization that helps European cities adopt the model.
Maine is not Iceland, but it is a small place with a serious substance use problem that could benefit from fresh, evidence-based ideas to keep kids from using drugs.
Given the current political climate against state spending, it seems unlikely that the LePage or Trump administrations would support such initiatives. But even without government support, there are lessons that communities, parents and schools wanting to prevent youth from using and eventually becoming addicted to harmful substances can learn from Iceland.
In short, encouraging kids to get involved in extracurricular activities and strengthening ties between parents and schools, and parents and kids, can go a long way.