Community volunteers in Lanark seeking new way to address substance abuse

The news media paints a pretty grim picture when it comes to youth and substance abuse.  Overdoses, death, crime, homelessness, health crises; there seems to be no end to the problems and no corner untouched by the ravages of addiction and abuse.  Experts, public health stakeholders, community leaders, and volunteers have all been struggling with improving our health for years, and with regards to substance abuse and misuse, few solutions hold any promise or have delivered any substantial results.



The small and isolated island nation of Iceland was facing a similar crisis in the late 1990s, but one of their leaders turned to an expert who had no experience with their particular problems and this was indeed fortunate.  For rather than rely on data and analyses from other jurisdictions, Dr. Harvey Milkman of the U.S., decided he needed to start from scratch and collect information directly from those involved, (high school students) before making any decisions.  He started a 20-year journey that took Iceland from having the worst substance use stats among youth in the entire European Union (48%) to having the best at 5%.  Incidents of bullying, theft and vandalism, as well as homelessness, witnessed similar reductions.

They started off with an annual, national, and detailed 70 question survey given to 15 and 16-year-olds.  It was created to enable stakeholders to get quick and relevant information analyzed and communicated (within 60 days or less) and continues to be administered to this day.  One of the interesting things they learned at the beginning was that students with lower than average substance use rates enjoyed more regular hours of organized after-school activities and spent more time with their parents.  The results were shared with everyone involved, as were proposed and implemented solutions.  They improved school to home communications.  Schools and sports facilities were encouraged to expand their hours of operations.  But the two initiatives that brought had the biggest impact were getting parents to increase the amount of time they spent with their children and creating more access for youth to positive extracurricular activities (sports, arts, and cultural pursuits).  Families were required to sign pledges promising to increase the number of hours spent daily with their children and every child was provided with the equivalent of $500 Cdn annually to offset the costs of their extracurricular activities.

Now over 40 countries around the globe have implemented similar research and actions with similar results.  What they shared in common was the experience that traditional models and approaches weren’t working.  Just saying no, punishing, threatening, and ignoring brought only failures.

In 2017, concerned residents and stakeholders in Carleton Place began to meet to ask what could be done in this region and specifically if the Icelandic Model (or Planet Youth as it is now known) could work here.  They presented their early discussion results to the Carleton Place Municipal Drug Strategy (MDS) Committee and the Lanark County and Town of Smiths Falls MDS Steering Committee where it was decided to move forward.  In a short period of time the membership around the action table grew with the addition of health and mental care specialists (including Open Doors for Lanark Children and Youth), school admin support professionals, addiction counselors, public health management and staff (Leeds, Grenville, and Lanark District Health Unit),  police service representatives, fundraising volunteers, and local political leaders.  Detailed presentations have been made to current and incoming municipal councils and support has been strong and responses positive.

On November 28th and 29th, one of the pioneers of Iceland’s efforts will visit Carleton Place and Perth to deliver comments at open town meetings.  Alfgeir Kristjansson, PhD MSc is an Associate Professor at the West Virginia University School of Health and a Senior Researcher at Reykjavik University in Iceland.  He’ll speak at All Nations Church on Bridge St in Carleton Place on November 28th (7-9 pm) and on the 29th at the Perth Legion on Beckwith St. (7-9 pm).  These meetings are open to the public and free to attend.  As this effort is gaining national attention, audience numbers are expected to reach capacity so registering via EventBrite is recommended.

Until research is completed and analyzed, the Planet Youth Lanark steering committee has no preconceived ideas of what changes can be or need to be made, but connecting and learning is the first step.  Join us on November 28th or 29th to help start the journey.  Our children’s lives could very well depend on it.

Submitted by Brian Turner, member of the Planet Youth Lanark County Steering Committee and Carleton Place Municipal Drug Strategy Committee.