#parents | #teensvaping | Alaska pilot program tackles youth substance abuse before it starts

WASILLA, Alaska (KTUU) – Drug and alcohol abuse cause issues in communities across Alaska. A pilot program in the Mat-Su Valley is working to prevent the onset of abuse in teen-aged youth, modeling an Icelandic program which health experts say has drastically reduced the island nation’s need for drug treatment.
Youth 360 launched its pilot programs in the summer of 2019 at Houston and Wasilla high schools. Program director Tyler Healey says they’re increasing access to after-school activities, essentially shepherding kids away from trouble and towards productive outlets.
“What it really comes down to is putting local information in the hands of local people, and making locally-based decisions about what’s going to work for young people,” Healey said.
The program is really a social network, connecting parents to the Mat-Su Borough School District to identify how kids are slipping through the cracks and resorting to drugs and alcohol. They survey students anonymously to learn more about how they’re spending their free time.

This community-based approach to curbing youth substance abuse began as an experiment in Iceland in the late 90s, according to international health expert Dr. Alfgeir Kristjansson. Originally from Iceland, Kristjansson is now an associate professor at West Virginia University’s Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. He travels around the world hailing the success of Iceland’s early primary prevention model, and recently presented to the Mat-Su Borough.
Kristjiansson said Iceland had very high youth substance abuse rates until a public outcry prompted policy change. Leaders had to alter the way they thought about prevention — tossing out traditional drug and alcohol education programs for a more integrated community approach.
Parents talked to each other about what they were seeing in their kids and what kind of resources might help them stay out of trouble; schools conducted anonymous surveys asking students how often they used alcohol or marijuana; prevention specialists pooled the information together, which policy makers used to help foster community relationships.
“We now have a platform where parents, professionals, and other stakeholders at the local level can make decisions about how to prioritize prevention,” Kristjiansson said.

The platform works. According to Kristjiansson, over the course of 20 years the need for drug treatment for kids age 20 and under has been cut in half. The money Iceland once put toward drug treatment is now invested in community infrastructure.
That’s exactly the future Youth 360 is hoping to create for Alaska, but change won’t happen overnight. Kristjiansson says it took three years for this model to catch on in Iceland, and another three to affect widespread reduction in youth substance abuse. This slow pace often deters government leaders from making the change, but Kristjiansson dubs this the price of progress.
“Are we willing to initiate something that takes time, and then changes culture and norms over time?” Kristjiansson asked.
Youth 360 currently operates a bus route to help families get their kids to and from the program, which operates after school until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Click here to get involved.
Youth 360 is a partnership of multiple sponsors, including: the Mat-Su Health Foundation, United Way of Mat-Su, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Alaska Mental Health Trust, the Rasmuson Foundation, Recover Alaska, the Mat-Su Borough, and the State of Alaska.
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