In the U.S., teen addiction rates have been increasing at a rapid rate. Iceland has created a solution that led them to have some of the cleanest in the world. Could the U.S. follow in their path and decrease their amount of teen addicts?

In 20 years, Iceland went from having some of the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe to some of the cleanest in the world. Now America has taken that spot with 62% of teens having abused alcohol by the 12th grade. Countries all around the world see the problem of teenagers falling into an addiction. Many have tried using the same methods as adults to cure teen addicts. However, an addicted teen is not the same as an addicted adult.

There are many reasons why teens get addicted to drugs: To numb their hurt, distract them from problems, or to simply cure their curiosity. Reality is often too much for many teens, so they slip into their own stress free world.

The teen years are a very emotional time, full of problems and stress. According to a recent study, 48% of teens use drugs to relax, while 37% use them to forget about troubles. Honesty Liller, who became addicted to drugs at 15, says “I fell in love with not having to deal with life, not having to deal with my feelings.” Drugs became an outlet to escape all the hardships of life.

Other teens are peer pressured into drug use. They’re convinced they will be powerful and cooler if they use drugs. In fact, 29% of teens say their addiction started because they wanted to fit in with friends. They don’t realize the harmful effects this choice will have on them.

When teenagers choose to use drugs, they don’t realize how it affects the people around them. It causes a lot of pain and heartache. Often, they are so caught up in trying to fix themselves they don’t realize the damage they’re doing to the people around them.

Families are torn apart by addictions. Relationships are ruined due to lies, theft, and isolation. Financial stability is destroyed due to hospital bills for overdose and purchasing the drugs. Teens choose to isolate themselves from family members to avoid talking about their problems. Many opportunities are missed because of dealing with the addiction. Ashleigh Nowakowski, whose brother was addicted during her teen years, said she felt neglected by her parents. “They were so focused on him all the time that I didn’t have any of their support. I had to navigate my own life.”

Those at home are not the only ones affected. Classmates are impacted in ways that can damage their learning experience. Seeing fellow classmates slowly getting addicted to drugs affects them in ways you can’t imagine. One student says, “It has not only taken away learning opportunities from me, as teachers have had to step out to handle the problem, but has made me wonder what made them get addicted. I fear I might find a reason to make me start using drugs. It really worries me that something could change my mind and make me think these dangerous substances are harmless.”

Drug addicts in the classroom alters work plans and causes several students to fall behind. Students are more likely to be distracted and don’t focus on their classwork. A 14-year-old student admits that the possibility of having drugs in her classroom makes her feel unsafe. “ I know there is a chance of them being used in class, exposing me to harmful substances. It just makes me feel like I’m in danger. Knowing I’d be defenseless against them frightens me.” Instead of school being the safe place it’s advertised as, it is seen as more of a threat.

Although America does not yet have a working solution, Iceland does. Iceland was able to cut down youth drug and alcohol consumption dramatically through curfews, after school programs, and new laws. Harvey Milkman was on the team of researchers who worked to reduce the number of teen addicts in Iceland. After working as an intern at the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York City in the early 1970s, he realized most people would choose drugs to numb their anxiety or get rid of it. Milkman came up with the idea of giving people what they needed to cope better with life, whether that be a rush or an experience to help reduce anxiety and stress.

His team formed Project Self-Discovery, which offered teenagers alternatives to drugs and crime. “We didn’t say to them, you’re coming in for treatment,” says Milkman in "How Iceland Got Teens to Say No to Drugs" by Emma Young. “We said, we’ll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts. It was designed around the idea of giving teens something better to do.”

After conducting a questionnaire for 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds in every school in Iceland, mayors and parents were interested in trying something new. Kids were being warned about the dangers of drugs and drinking through education, but, as seen in the U.S., these programs weren’t working. Using the survey data, a new national plan called Youth in Iceland was introduced.

Laws were changed. It was illegal to purchase tobacco under the age of 18 and alcohol under the age of 20, along with advertising for these products. Parental organizations had to be established in every school by law. This strengthened the bonds between parents and their children by encouraging parents to “spend a quantity of time with their children rather than the occasional “quality” time.” A law was also passed that prohibited children 13 to 16 from being outside after 10 pm in the winter and midnight in summer.

Government funding was also increased for clubs to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group and to feel good, and kids from low-income families received help to take part.

The surveys have continued and show that their solution actually works. Between 1997 to 2012, the percentage of kids aged 15 and 16 who reported spending time with parents doubled, from 23 percent to 46, as did the percentage who participated in organized sports, from 24 to 1
Meanwhile, cigarette smoking, drinking, and marijuana use in this group plummeted.

Although this solution is very effective for Iceland, some changes will have to be made before it could be installed in the U.S. Many would disagree with child curfews. However, watches around the neighborhood at night would be more agreeable. A trial in Brighton showed it was harder to get parents engaged in activities. Milkman thinks these unresponsive parents go to the heart of the balance of responsibility between states and citizens.

In Iceland, the rates of teenagers smoking and drinking has been cut down tremendously, while also bringing families closer together and making kids healthier. The U.S. has had a growing number of teen addicts in the past years which will only get worse as time goes on. Will we decide that the benefits brought to our youth are worth the costs?

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