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If Iceland can connect the dots, we should, too

Here's a line you've probably never read before: How come we aren't paying more attention to Iceland?

That's right. Iceland. Way up yonder. Where they say, "waiter, there's volcanic ash in my soup."

Seems Iceland, though, does something way better than we do here in the good ol' U.S. of A: They care about their kids in that community sort of way.

Mosaic, a website that explores how science affects our lives, published a fascinating story recently on how the powers of sports, arts and caring have profoundly changed the lives of heretofore troubled Icelandic teens. Makes you wonder: What if we cared that much here?

Twenty years ago, Icelandic teens were among the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe. Drug use was rampant to the point where downtown Reykjavik was unsafe on Friday and Saturday nights because teens were out of control. Know what they did?

The Mosaic story reads, "State funding was increased for organized sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group, and to feel good, rather than through using alcohol and drugs. Kids from low-income families received help to take part. In Reykjavik, for instance, where more than a third of the country's population lives, a Leisure Card gives families 35,000 krona ($250) per year per child to pay for recreational activities."

Go figure.

Who knew it could be this easy?

The hero of the story: Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches for part of the year at Reykjavik University. Milkman once worked at Bellevue in the 1970s when LSD was more popular than the Beatles.

Milkman was teaching at Metropolitan State College of Denver when he began to link changes in brain chemistry and addiction.

Kids who were 'active confronters' were after a rush, Milkman said, and they'd get it by "stealing hubcaps and radios and later cars, or through stimulant drugs."

Milkman: "People can get addicted to drink, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine – whatever. The idea of behavioral addiction became our trademark."

Then Milkman had his epiphany: "Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry – because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness – without the deleterious effects of drugs?"

Soon, his team won a $1.2 million government grant to form Project Self-Discovery, which offered teenagers natural-high alternatives to drugs and crime. They got referrals from teachers, school nurses and counselors, taking in kids from the age of 14 who didn't see themselves as needing treatment but who had problems with drugs or petty crime.

Milkman was asked to lecture in Iceland several times on the matter. Know what happened? The adults actually did some homework. They went to the kids and asked their opinions. From Mosaic:

"Nationally, almost 25 per cent were smoking every day, over 40 per cent had got drunk in the past month. But when officials drilled right down into the data, they could identify precisely which schools had the worst problems – and which had the least.

"Their analysis revealed clear differences between the lives of kids who took up drinking, smoking and other drugs, and those who didn't. A few factors emerged as strongly protective: participation in organized activities – especially sport – three or four times a week, total time spent with parents during the week, feeling cared about at school, and not being outdoors in the late evenings."

They used their resources to build an indoor skating facility, pool, turf field, badminton courts and sponsored after-school classes for music, dance and art in downtown Reykjavik.

From Mosaic: "Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 per cent in 1998 to five percent in 2016. The percentage that has ever used cannabis is down from 17 percent to seven percent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 percent to three percent."

Milkman: "This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen."

And it's built on caring and common sense: sports and the arts help kids achieve natural highs.

We can't do more of this ... why? What, we can't connect the dots between caring enough to help kids to their improved psychological and physical well-being in addition to reduced burdens on healthcare agencies?

It's not that difficult. The money is there. Heck, I know one particular person in the region who is rather adept at writing grants. Wouldn't be that hard to get the money to build things that interest kids.

Why don't we more of this in New London, for example?

Or any other town?

Because if there's one thing kids in Everytown, USA are good at saying, it's this: "We're bored."

So let's occupy them. With sports, arts and some give-a-damn.

And Iceland shall lead us.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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