In the film Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle, Renton provides this sage advice ‘You’re an addict. So be addicted, just be addicted to something else.’ (Trainspotting 2, 2017) This is more or less the philosophy adopted by Harvey Milkman and Gudberg Jónsson, psychology researchers who represent a public health movement centered on countering adolescent substance abuse.
Milkman began his research into behavioural addiction when he was an intern in a New York Psychiatric Hospital, in the early 1970’s. His research explored the idea that human beings were not addicted exclusively to a particular drug, but rather to fluctuations in their brain chemistry, and that people’s choice of either heroin or amphetamines was dictated by how they chose to manage stress (by numbing it or confronting it). “People can be addicted to drink, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine – whatever,” says Milkman. “The idea of behavioral addiction became our trademark” (Mosaic Science, 2017).
Milkman hypothesized that people could be on the threshold for substance abuse before they had even come into contact with drugs such as heroin – that coping mechanisms were personal and hardwired, a predisposition to seek out activities that would alter brain chemistry in a specific way. So Milkman proposed a possible solution – “why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs, about people getting high on their own brain chemistry?” (Mosaic Science, 2017)
Milkman and Gudberg met in Iceland in 1991, and sparked the beginnings of this movement in the form or a residential drug treatment center for adolescents, in a small town called Tindar. Essentially Milkman and Gudberg’s philosophy in Iceland is very simple – provide teenagers with natural high alternatives to drugs and crime.
Twenty years ago, says Gudberg, Icelandic teens were among the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe. Now Icelandic teens are amongst the most healthy adolescents living in Europe, with the percentage of teenagers who consume alcohol, cannabis, and cigarettes on a daily basis plummeting between 1998 and 2016 (Youth In Europe, 2017).
The simple yet effective strategy Iceland has committed to (known as ‘Youth in Europe’) focuses on providing ‘life-skills training’ (teaching self-awareness, communication skills, and positive thinking) as well as providing teens with an outlet of some kind to help them release stress and feel a sense of community. Teenagers don’t enter the program under the premise of treatment, but of being taught any skill or sport they want to learn: from music to martial arts.
“The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information,” Milkman says (Mosaic Science, 2017).
Iceland has now integrated its municipalities into a system that benefits the physical and mental health of millions of its young citizens. However, despite the success of the measures taken in Iceland – the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. Could similar systems be used in Australia, or Indonesia, where the war on drugs has taken a two-pronged approach ‘targeting both supply and demand’ rather than approaching the root of the problem? Perhaps such an initiative could enable Australian and Indonesia to look beyond ‘broad-based education campaigns, increased powers for the judiciary and a high-tech crime-fighting capability’ and take a closer look at the basic human needs and instincts that fuel substance abuse (Inside Indonesia, 2007).
Immi, D. 2017, Iceland Teen Substance Abuse, The Atlantic, viewed 13 February 2017, <https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/01/teens-drugs-iceland/513668/>.
Inside Indonesia 2007, Youth Heroin Use, Jakarta, viewed 12 Feb 2017, <http://www.insideindonesia.org/youth-heroin-use?highlight=WyJkcnVnIiwiJ2RydWciLCJ5b3V0aCIsInlvdXRoJ3MiLCIneW91dGgiLCJ5b3V0aCcuIiwiJ3lvdXRoJyJd>.
Lopez, G. 2015, Methadone Addiction, Vox Media, viewed 13 February 2017, <http://www.vox.com/2015/7/21/9009253/methadone-addiction-drug-courts>.
Miramax, 1996. Trainspotting, Outtake, viewed 12 February 2017, <https://www.tribecashortlist.com/blog/2016/05/25/in-plain-sight-4-examples-of-hidden-symbolism-in-trainspotting/>.
Mosaic Science 2017, Iceland Knows How to Stop Teen Substance Abuse But The Rest Of The World Isn’t Listening, viewed 11 Feb 2017, <https://mosaicscience.com/story/iceland-prevent-teen-substance-abuse>.
T2 Trainspotting 2017, Motion Picture, TriStar Pictures, Edinburgh.
Youth In Europe 2017, Youth In Europe – Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis, viewed 14 Feb 2017, <http://youthineurope.org>.