CHARLESTON — In the 1990s, Iceland realized it had a problem.
The country’s youth were drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and marijuana, and landing in substance use disorder treatment in their 20s, or else graduating to stronger substances. They led European nations in drug use.
So they decided to change how they do prevention, and that model is now being implemented in West Virginia, through the efforts of Icelandic native and current West Virginia University professor Alfgeir L. Kristjansson.
“You’ll notice the model doesn’t mention drugs,” Kristjansson told the House Select Committee on the Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse Thursday. “It’s all about strengthening communities.”
Iceland, like West Virginia and the rest of the U.S., relied on instructional programming in the school system to do all drug prevention education, which Kristjansson said runs under the assumption you can teach an individual to say no to drugs. Most of those programs don’t work, the professor said.
The Icelandic model works to address the societal reasons that are proven to lead to substance abuse. The model focuses on strengthening four core areas that help shape an individual: family, peers, school and leisure time.
The first step is building capacity and finding local people to work with. Then it’s on to data collection. Kristjansson said he wants to wake up communities, and doing that requires hyper-local data. So, if the model was being implemented in west Huntington, for example, he would not use West Virginia data or even Cabell County data, but work to gather new information specific to the west Huntington community.
With data in hand, the community can then formulate goals and plans to address the issues and work toward long-term change. For example, a community may find it is lacking in after-school programming, especially for low-income families. One solution would be to allow schools to be open after hours for community use, which is something the state Legislature has attempted to do in recent years with no success.
“There is nothing about the character of an individual child that makes them more likely to try substances,” Kristjansson said. “It has everything to do with where they are from, who is around them and what opportunities they have in their lives.”
Iceland now has some of the lowest rates of substance abuse among youth in Europe. According to a “The Atlantic” article, the percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17% to 7%. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23% to just 3%.
“No six-month education program is going to produce those numbers,” Kristjansson said.
Kristjansson believes the model can work in West Virginia, which is similarly rural and homogeneous like Iceland. Thanks to a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he is bringing the model to Fayette and Wyoming counties. They already have begun data collection and will soon work with the communities to establish goals.
Kristjansson stressed it is not a program, but a collaborative. Without the direct support from the community, it won’t work.
“We don’t like being told what to do,” he said. “We want our community to raise us well and give us opportunities to succeed.”
Committee chair Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said the resulting data was stunning, and affirmed his belief that “idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.” Rohrbach has asked his counsel and support staff to continue to study the Icelandic model, particularly how it works in the two pilot counties, and how they can expand it across the state.
Thursday’s meeting was the final scheduled meeting of the select committee unless Senate bills are assigned there.