Side event: Let’s talk about drugs – substance education among the youth

Side event organised by Youth Organisations for Drug Action with the support of the Eurasian Harm Reduction Association.

Eliza Kurcevic, Eurasian Harm Reduction Association. Thanks for joining us, we have great colleagues and partners joining us today to share their experience of how they are educating people on drugs. A few years ago, we identified a lack of approaches on how to discuss and educate young people about drugs. Should we talk to them about prevention and healthy lifestyles or should we also talk to them about harm reduction, since some are already using drugs? We came to the conclusion that loads of education is happening at school, but not after school, and we know loads of young people go to youth organisations and other activities after school. So we created a manual on how to effectively communicate with young people about drugs. We will share today the experience of how we’re working and communicating with young people in our organisations on drugs. If you want to get more information about our project funded by the European Commission, go to our website: www.drugeducationyouth.org.

I also want to mention the war in Ukraine, we stand with the Ukrainian people. Lots of people don’t have access to essential services, including health services, humanitarian corridors are not open, there is restricted access to food and water, schools are now closed and destroyed. We ask all of you to spread the message and stand in solidarity.

I invite Roksana Karczewska to join us and speak about how the youth organisations are building the bridge between decision-makers and youth NGOs, how youth are involved in decision making at European level. Roksana works with young people on harm reduction at national level as well.

Roksana Karczewska, Youth Organisations for Drug Action, Poland. Today I will speak about youth participation in civil society. I will discuss: 1- what YODA is, does and stands for, 2- participation in the CND and the EU Civil Society Forum on Drugs (CSFD), 3- developing an App for youth awarded by the Pompidou Group.

There is a gap between policy makers, stakeholders and people affected by substance use. As a youth civil society we can fill this gap and bring together policy makers and those affected. It’s important as policies should serve people, not the other way around.

YODA is a network of youth organisations and young activists and we seek to implement policies focusing on youth. We stand for the inclusion of youth in policy making, we want the implementation of drug education programmes based on evidence, we want popularisation of harm reduction, to ensure access to treatment and other services for youth, we believe in peer based interventions, and we want human rights protection. We have various recommendations and guidelines developed by YODA, including improving health for homeless youth, reducing risk factors for HIV and hepatitis transmission, etc.

YODA has participated in the CND for several years now. We organised side events, prepared statements for high-level delegates at the UN. The CND is also a chance to meet up with our country delegates, so besides changing the international level policies, we engage in national level advocacy.

Youth participation is important and efficient for policy makers. We provide effective services where governments cannot, our expertise puts us in a unique position to identify new trends in drug use and develop rapid harm reduction responses, we are the closest to people who use drugs. Young people listen to other young people and we provide peer to peer support. We are responsible for providing training and skills for youth, to protect our peers and improve communities.

The CSFD is a platform for discussion between the EU and civil society. Thanks to the CSFD, those affected can engage in EU level drug policy making. This is important because policy makers are not always aware of the outcomes of their policies. We can provide feedback on that, and what can be improved. Recently, YODA held a meeting of the CSFD in Warsaw and we set up an action plan and discussed quality standards for project implementation.

I finally want to discuss Trip App (www.tripapp.org), an app developed by YODA to provide youth affected by drug use honest and reliable information on substances, information on where they can get treatment and harm reduction services. It is tailored to the needs of youth.

Eliza, EHRA. Nina has extensive knowledge in research and advocacy in public health and harm reduction among youth and marginalised communities.

Nina Sasic, Re Generation, Serbia. Today I will talk about our peer to peer work as an effective approach in drug education. I will focus on the data we have collected during our research. I will talk about what my organisation does in drug education. First of all, what is peer to peer for? It is based on similarly of relevant experience and belonging to the same social group. It allows peer workers to offer support, guidance and health based on their own experience. They build trust and all parties are equal. The three pillars of peer work are: mutuality (no power inequality), life experience (showing the other party on how to overcome life difficulties based on one’s own experience) and optimism and hope. This means that peer work can provide knowledge that is non-judgemental and non-authoritative.

The research shows that most respondents had experience in drug use, but most perceived poor education in drugs, mostly by police officers, teachers or healthcare professionals. They all turned to the internet, friends of the media when needing information about drug use. Most respondents when asked who should talk to them about drug education, responded they wanted to receive education by drug counsellors, psychologists and youth workers, as well as health professionals.

In all 5 countries, youth considered relevant lived experience and expertise to be prerequisites for educators to talk about drugs. People need to know what they’re talking about. Educators were perceived as not being knowledgeable enough, and approaches were mostly scare tactics, abstinence based without talking about harm reduction, and information was incomplete, inaccurate or irrelevant.

Peer work is effective as peer workers belong to the same social groups as the target audience, helping to build trust. Peer workers also have lived experience, making them seem more legitimate to young people, and peer workers try to relate to them. The approach is informal, open and non-judgemental, encouraging honest, interactive and considerate conversations. The information is more accurate and connected to the audience. The messaging also relates to ethical principles related to human rights, confidentiality and leading by personal example. Finally, it provides impartial and evidence-based information.

I now want to speak about one specific type of peer work: the nightlife outreach programme. Nightlife is a very relevant context for illicit substance use. It is a place where youth commonly use drugs based on our data. There is also risky behaviour in nightlife settings. But drug education is very poor, focusing on universal prevention based on scare tactics, focusing mostly on heroin use prevention without providing harm reduction. So it’s not adapted to youth’ substance use. Peer workers’ involvement is therefore really necessary. Not everything can be covered by educational programmes, even if they are modernised.

Eliza, EHRA. Not everybody needs the same kind of information and we need to adapt our approaches based on the needs of young people. Peer work is one of the approaches that helps young people in various situations. I will now move to our third speaker. Our last two speakers are not necessarily as much in the field of drugs, but when we met during our project, we started to cooperate and speak more with youth workers. What I learned was that there is not just harm reduction and peer education. There is also theatres, podcasts, etc. I will now turn to Balint Torok who works in Hungary. He works for a youth theatre organisation.

Balint Torok, Presumptive Cultural and Youth Organisation, Hungary. I want to talk about how we approach this topic because up until the point that we got included in this project, we’d never thought about how important our work could be in this area of work. We were founded around 20 years ago. At the time it wasn’t as professional as it is now, there wasn’t that much of a focus on drugs now. It is based in Kecskemet, a small town in Hungary, where you don’t find a lot of theatres as most are based in Budapest. So we built this environment and community. We are focusing in theatre-related workshops.

Every year, we start drama groups in schools and communities. In the beginning of September and throughout the school year, we introduce youth to each other, and give a sense to themselves. When a high schooler has never been in such an environment, they may be uncomfortable talking about their lives because of stigma. It’s important to make them comfortable to speak about certain topics. It goes hand in hand with theatre-related games. The focus is not about the need to talk about drugs. It’s about playing a verbal or non-verbal game, and we can experience how to get feelings out of people, and how to manage them. And this starts a conversation. It’s honest, young people are more likely to say what they really think. This workshop focuses on getting real information.

On the second stage, we put together a play so that they can talk about these topics creatively. Sometimes, their experience is limited, they want to be interesting or funny, but this leads to discussions about why they might depict a person who’s drunk or has taken drugs, and have a conversation about how to make their character more life-like. We create group cohesion and trust that way, while still being provocative at the same time. We can think about what they’re going to say and what the message will be.

A final thing we do is a summer camp in the summer, to come together. They work with professional actors then. with big names in Hungary. This places some pressure on them to perform, put work in. The community is very supportive, and help when young people make mistakes, they provide practical advice and explain how they can do better. There are other effects happening: in most summer camps there are strict rules on non consuming alcohol or staying late at night. But we decided that we should skip those rules: if you are in that camp, you need to be present, be focused and work, and present yourself in a way that is helpful to the group. But this are our only rules. We don’t restrict them, but give them a chance to regulate other behaviours themselves and with one another. There is a mutual understanding of how it should work.

Eliza, EHRA. Milena’s organisation works on youth activism. She has been part of great youth teams and worked as an educator, activist and advocate. She will speak about the importance of cooperation between youth and harm reduction organisations: is it possible for youth organisations not working on drugs issues to work together with harm reduction organisations?

Milena Zaharieva, SMART Foundation, Bulgaria. We work on mainstream youth, so we’re not specialised in drug education but we work with young people and on health education. Podcasts are simpler online versions of a radio. The quality is becoming higher and more professional, but anyone with a computer, a phone and mic could produce a podcast. According to recent research among 155 young people from Bulgaria, 80% listen to podcasts, mostly on social topics, and personal stories. We’ve done more than 200 episodes so far. We’re doing it on practically any topic we find interesting to youth from career development, to the environment, to sex and drugs. It’s challenging, it’s hard work, but it’s also so much fun! If you have ever thought about it, I’d say go for it, it’s worth it. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, as long as it’s important to you. There will always be somebody to listen. Youth love it.

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