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Highland school pupils to shape programme designed to improve lives of young people after success of pioneering Planet Youth model in Iceland in cutting teenage drinking, smoking and drug abuse

By Val Sweeney

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Eve MacLeod, health improvement specialist for NHS Highland, says the project has the potential to change young lives for the better.
Eve MacLeod, health improvement specialist for NHS Highland, says the project has the potential to change young lives for the better.

A pioneering programme to dramatically improve the lives of young people across the Highlands is to be partly shaped by younger folk themselves.

The Planet Youth prevention model is being introduced in Scotland to establish what is needed to keep young people safe, healthy and happy.

Based on a pioneering approach already taken in Iceland, it is believed to have been instrumental in achieving a huge drop in teenage drinking and smoking there, as well as increasing participation in sport and physical activity levels, and enabled families to spend more time together.

It has led to young people in the country being labelled "the cleanest living teens in Europe", and given Scotland’s historically poor record when it comes to alcohol and tobacco consumption, political and health leaders are keen to see if a similar approach can reap rewards here – with the Highlands being one of four areas where the scheme is to be piloted.

Five of the region’s secondary schools will be involved, along with others in Clackmannanshire, Dundee and West Dunbartonshire.

The charity, Winning Scotland, has teamed up with Planet Youth and four public sector organisations including the Highland Alcohol and Drug Partnership to deliver the project, and youngsters at all participating schools will take part in regular surveys to gather a snapshot of teenage life in their areas.

The confidential surveys will be processed and analysed by the Planet Youth Data Centre in Reykjavik so it will be impossible to trace pupil responses to any individual.

Pupils will be asked about their school and home life and how they spend their free time, including whether they use drugs and alcohol.

The partnership will receive the survey results for each school in November or December to pinpoint needs.

An overall report with data from across the 10 participating schools will also be produced and shared publicly.

Local groups and services will then work together to address the needs and issues raised.

Eve MacLeod, health improvement specialist for NHS Highland, said the project really has the potential to change young lives for the better.

"We’re excited to be involved in this initiative, as we want to help young people in Highland live healthier, happier and safer lives," she said.

"The evidence from Planet Youth in Iceland suggests that this approach could be highly effective in achieving a number of outcomes, like strengthening families, creating community cohesion, improving physical activity levels and reducing alcohol, tobacco and drug use."

She said it was a collaborative approach, involving multiple partners including education, health and community.

"With our partners, we are committed to working together to ensure the best possible outcomes for young people," she said.

"Young people themselves are at the heart of this approach.

"Not only are they sharing their experiences and opinions in the surveys, but we will be encouraging all parties involved to ensure that young people’s voices are heard in the design and development of any proposed solutions."

Two years ago, NHS Highland revealed it was considering following the Icelandic example, and suggested a 10pm curfew for 13 to 16-year-olds and 8pm for children aged 12 and under in a bid to cut drug and alcohol abuse.

Zahra Hedges, chief executive of Winning Scotland, believes Planet Youth Scotland has the potential to make a "hugely positive" contribution to the health and wellbeing of young people, just as it has in Iceland.

"Together with our partners, we are committed to putting our young people first, and that begins by listening to what they say in the surveys, and doing everything we can to ensure they are safe, healthy and happy," she said.

Pall Rikhardsson, chief executive of Planet Youth, said: "Mapping out the situation in Scotland on a local level to acquire a baseline status will give an overview of substance use and overall wellbeing of youth.

"This is a vital part in identifying the main issues at hand and to further work towards changing the environment of children."

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