Natural High – A Preventive Strategy for Reducing Substance Abuse

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Addiction, substance abuse, and suicide are serious issues that afflict many families including the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. For a number of years now, there have been grassroots efforts at tackling the rates of substance abuse, including methamphetamine, but nothing of substance as arisen from these efforts. Twenty years ago, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland faced a high rate of teen substance abuse, and they decided something must be done to reduce usage rates and prevent addiction.

Step one was to measure by asking teens about their usage via anonymous questionnaires.  The results were alarming, and government officials decided to address it through an unconventional method and prevention model developed by Psychology Professor Harvey Milkman, PhD, (now a Professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver) and Gudberg Jónsson, a psychologist from Iceland. Iceland invested in their youth and committed to a long-term longitudinal study named “Project Self-Discovery”. This evidence-based, preventive program was aimed at teens 14-16 years of age, and it focused on identifying a person’s preferred coping mechanism for stress based on their brain chemistry, and on satisfying that coping mechanism through healthy means instead of drugs and/or alcohol – via a natural high.

Factors that Protect Against Teen Substance Abuse

Project Self-Discovery began in 1992 with students, ages 14-16, filling out anonymous questionnaires asking about substance usage and relationships with the community, and their family. Not only did they establish baseline data, but analysis of the questionnaires revealed “strong protective factors” that kept teens from using:

  • Participation in organized activities three to four times a week – especially sports
  • Total quality (not necessarily quantity) time spent with parents within a week
  • Feeling cared about at school,
  • And not being outdoors in the late evening

Preferred Coping Mechanism and Behavioral Addiction


The questionnaires also revealed each teen’s preferred coping mechanism, which is how they prefer to deal with the ups and downs of daily life.  Each individual’s coping mechanism reflects his or her individual brain chemistry, which in turn influences the types of usage.  Some people prefer sedation to cope, and this preference correlates with use and abuse of drugs like alcohol or marijuana.  Other people’s brains want a rush, and that group gravitates toward stimulants like methamphetamine, stealing, and other risky behaviors.

Aside from the results, the implications of this study are significant, because it puts less focus on the actual “drug of choice” in AA parlance.  The drug of choice is not what is being abused – the actual addictive behavior is the abuse of one’s preferred coping mechanism.   If you can swap out harmful substances with a healthy activity that provides the natural high the brain chemistry prefers, the rates of usage and subsequent addictions fall.  An important unanticipated side effect was a reduction in suicide attempts.  The following quote shows the results Iceland achieved:

The percentage of 15- and 16-year-old teens who had been drunk in the previous month dropped from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. The percentage of cannabis users has even dropped from 17% to 7%, and those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23% to 3%.

SOURCE:  “Iceland Knows How to Stop Teen Substance Abuse but The Rest of The World Isn’t Listening“, accessed on 3 May 2017.

A Common Sense Approach

A first step in addressing substance abuse, after identifying the problem is prevention.  Iceland reversed their rates in just one generation – twenty years, by putting into place sensible measures like curfews for teens, and by providing life skills training to develop coping skills.  Parental commitment was also important, and guidance and education was given to parents to encourage them to spend quality time with their children, and to know their activities and who their kid(s) hang out with. The overall goals were to strengthen family, school and community bonds. Most importantly, Iceland committed additional resources and funding for non-school activities to give teens a natural high through participating in sports of all kinds, music, art, dance, and clubs that satisfied their coping mechanism and brain chemistry without substance use/abuse.

Beyond Iceland

Other municipalities and regions are attempting to duplicate these results, and so far this program has been rolled out in 35 communities in 17 countries.  The original researchers still actively participate and assist communities by tailoring the program to their unique needs and situation.  A Community Center may have an Olympic-sized pool, basketball courts, volleyball courts, racquetball courts; dance, music and art studios, and provide space for clubs of all kinds to fit different interests including cultural/traditional activities. It is not outlandish to think that our Tribe could create our own program with goals and strategies tailored to our own situation.

This evidence-based, preventive program has been proven to work – can we make it work for us?


Behavioral Addiction Graphic: “Behavioral Addiction Defined“, accessed 3 May 2017.
Community Engagement Cloud Graphic: Community Engagement Funding Resources, accessed 3 May 2017.

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