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Can connections with community and family help fight addiction?

Research from Iceland suggests that there a several

Research from Iceland suggests that there a several key risk factors for drug abuse among teens. Credit: TNS / Liz O. Baylen

Drug treatment and recovery experts on Long Island and across the country are always willing to talk about the wave of heroin and prescription painkiller addiction that is growing and killing exponentially, particularly among young people. But when they share what they know, there’s one part they can’t quite explain with statistics and theories.

There’s something deeply broken, they say, something missing, some hole in too many people’s hearts that makes them want to get high and stay high — that makes them unwilling to feel their real feelings.

Perhaps it’s a lack of spirituality or religion in modern life, some muse. Perhaps a lack of structure or a lack of quality time in families, or enough time together, or community or connection or activities or motivation. Or all of these things.

Iceland faced a similar problem in the 1990s, with the highest levels of teen smoking, drinking and drug use in Europe. So officials asked why. They listened to the answers. And they began to fix it.

Starting in 1992, questionnaires were used to ask every 14-, 15- and 16-year-old kid in the country how often he or she used substances, how teens spent their time, how they felt emotionally, whether they did much with their parents, how much they were out at night, and dozens of other things.

According to a story by journalist Emma Young in The Atlantic last month, Icelandic officials did all this surveying at the suggestion of American psychologist Harvey Milkman, who had been researching in the field since the 1970s. They uncovered the extent of the problem and some causes. And as they continued to survey and experiment, they came up with some solutions.

In 1998, 42 percent of Icelandic 15- and 16-year-olds had been drunk in the preceding month. In 2016, 5 percent had. Marijuana use in that period dropped from 17 percent to 7 percent, and smoking plunged from 23 percent to 3 percent.

What officials learned in Iceland was that the teens’ answers were very strong predictors of who would abuse substances. Kids had a low risk of abuse if they were in sports or other structured, frequent activities, were not socially isolated, spent a lot of time with parents throughout the week and were not out on their own late at night. Those who checked only some of these boxes were at moderate risk, and those who didn’t meet any of the criteria were at very high risk.

Iceland went after the problem in several ways. First, there was a huge expansion of subsidized, organized activities for teens, from team sports to martial arts to music to dancing, along with training in how to deal with life. These took away the free time the kids used to get in trouble, and gave teens the adrenaline rushes or emotional comfort they had sought in drugs.

The added structure and discipline, along with more and better adult mentoring, also helped kids develop better coping skills. Iceland also banned young teens from being outside late at night. And the nation worked hard to increase the amount of time parents spent with teen children.

Milkman has slowly been bringing his program to other places in Europe in the past few years. He always starts with questionnaires, identifying the depth of problems and their causes, which can vary from place to place but tend to have common strains.

We should try this with Long Island’s teens, all of them, finding out what is broken and missing by asking, and working to fix the problems we identify.

Nothing else is working.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.