The Thingvellier National Park is one of the most renowned tourist trips in Iceland. It is about 45 kilometers north east of Reykjavik and part of the very popular Golden Circle tour. The park marks the ridge caused by the separation of two tectonic plates, where the two continents have moved – the Eurasian and North American continents. The scenery is stunning, creating an awe inspiring feeling of smallness. It feels like a glimpse into history, a stunning vista that leaves you feeling this: that our short lives are only drops in the oceans of time. This, by the way, is far from a gloomy prospect, more of a liberating experience. It makes you realise with an optimistic sense of urgency that we can only do what we can with the short time that is given to us. It is a reminder to use it wisely.
We in DALC found ourselves in Iceland as part of a trip organised by the Erasmus Plus training programme to attend a three day workshop delivered by Planet Youth. We had read a little about the Icelandic Prevention Model, as it gained some coverage in the Irish media. The model was a commitment to reduce substance abuse among adolescents in Iceland. The rate of teenage drinking back in the late 1990s was much higher and the model was developed as a way of tackling this.
How did they do it and what can we learn?
The model worked by committing to changing the social environment over time. It was a long term preventive plan that believed change was possible. Instead of relying on the ‘just say no’ approach or on programmes delivered in schools, they decided to take a community approach – namely, to change the environment that would make such misuse impossible, taboo and ultimately unlikely.
We tend to place the responsibility on the individual to carry out their own prevention, but in the Icelandic Model – society is the patient. We know that some individuals and indeed some communities are more at risk of substance abuse and therefore it the culture of a community that needs to change.
Iceland is a story of change – a different story after 20 years. It is about having the vision to change that story. In the future, could we be telling a different story in Ireland?
It was this seismic shift that was needed to change the culture that had built up in Iceland and had allowed such misuse among teenagers to take place. The model is set on three pillars – 1. research (collecting data about the issues out there. With information we can examine the realities of our own community, rather than blindly making assumptions) 2. policy changes and 3. dialogue between people who worked for and with young people – families, schools and communities.
In a nutshell, the model centers about directing adolescents and teenagers towards other pursuits – structured sports and classes. They provided a Leisure Card that became a national policy used by all young people. The involvement of the whole community also plays a significant role. Parents need to be involved in positive monitoring of their children, in spending more time with their children – not only for monitoring but to better develop relationships. It involves having a supportive culture among parents to ensure they all think in the same way about substance abuse, freedom and safety. It makes it easier to stop your child pushing the boundaries of trying alcohol or cannabis for the first time if all the others parents are on the same page. The model also centers around school engagement and developing positive peer group relationships.
Like all good ideas, entirely simple approaches yet ones that need to be driven by hard work and commitment as well as a positive buy-in from all members of the community.
What application does this model have for us here in Ireland? We know alcohol is a huge part of Irish culture and something we may find hard to challenge. A little like the way they think about guns in the US, we are not aware of how alcohol plays a central role in all our lives and this has to filter down to our teenagers. Some places in Ireland have already began to adopt the lessons from Iceland and many other places we hope will do the same. There is great work being done already through lots of organisations who work in substance abuse prevention and addiction services. Some fantastic prevention work is already being done in schools, families and communities.
The Icelandic model sees society as the patient, rather than blaming the individual for negative outcomes. The prevention model focuses on altering the social and organisational environment that makes substance abuse impossible.
We as adult educators could begin this shift in changing cultural norms, or in envisaging the possibility of such a change in the first place. We can begin this important conversation and start moving the landscape through local meetings, parenting and education groups, to share the lessons learned in Iceland.
The Icelandic model was rooted in a vision to change the patterns of behaviour and the cultural norms, from government policy, to communities and to families. They had a plan to change what some people initially found impossible.
One evening on our trip, we walked to The Grotta Lighthouse – the place where local Icelanders go to see the Northern Lights. It was one of the coldest walks I can remember. We thought of turning back, we wondered was it worth it. At one point we lost our way as it was dark and Google maps had failed.
Yet our will to see the spectacle of the lights kept us going. We had a plan, we had a goal and so we kept going. With a sense of purpose and working together, we got there in the end.
It is amazing what can be achieved when we do not lose sight of our vision.
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