Community Collaboration Central to Planet Youth Strategy

On February 11 and 12, United Way of Calgary and Area brought together more than 120 community leaders to learn about Planet Youth, a community-driven research-based prevention model that has seen substance use among Icelandic youth drop radically since its inception 20 years ago. The event was held in partnership with Alberta Health Services and Calgary Police Service, and built on the Substance Misuse Symposium held last year. Guests included representatives from health, education and research, social services, police, and government.

Dr. Álfgeir Kristjánsson, associate professor in the School of Public Health at West Virginia University, and senior scientist with Planet Youth, opened the sessions with an overview of the Planet Youth strategy and insights into its success.

“Success of the model depends on research-informed practice, using a community-based approach, and creating and maintaining connections between research, policy and practice,” Kristjánsson explained.

The Icelandic model is proven to work


Planet Youth demonstrated an impressive decrease in drinking among Icelandic youth from 42% in 1998 to less than 5% in 2018. Over the same period, daily smoking decreased from 23% to 2%, and those who had tried cannabis dropped from 17% to 6%.

Developed by the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis at Reykjavik University in 1999, more than 40 municipalities in 23 countries around the world currently use elements of the Planet Youth approach.

Research shows that the earlier in life youth begin using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, the more likely they will develop dependencies on these substances in later years. The Icelandic model helps prevent and delay the use of these substances in youth, taking an upstream approach to this issue and addressing the root causes of this problem to lessen its impact. It starts with supporting families and building resilient children.

A community-based approach is key


Recognizing substance use as not simply a healthcare or policing problem, the model relies on community involvement, engaging parents with one another, their neighbourhoods and schools; a significant effort to ensure visibility of the program in the community; and involvement of those who organize youth activities.

The Planet Youth event confirmed the need for the community to purposefully come together to address the complex issues of mental health and addictions in our city. As Karen Young summarized, “We recognize that no one person or organization can do this alone. The strain on the human services sector and gap between needs and resources continues to grow. We know there will never be enough money to combat this social issue with our health and justice systems. We need an integrated, holistic, community-led approach.”

Delegates agreed. Some of the comments we received included,

“What we’re doing is not working. Downstream solutions do not address our societal issues.”

“This is systems thinking at its best.”

“I was struck by the strength of data and systems approach.”

“Very excited about ‘It takes a village.’’”

“Collaboration is a key element – no silo thinking anymore.”

“Linking research, policy and practice is essential in addressing root causes.”

‏As work begins on the City of Calgary mental health and addiction strategy, we look forward to continuing to collaborate with our community partners to formulate a strategy that works for our community.