Murder: #2 Cause of Death for (young) Belizeans. A Novel Solution?
By: Charles Leslie Jr | Public Relations Director of the BPP
If you pay close attention, you will notice that the vast majority of murders that happen in Belize are among our youths, and some form of drug is always a major contributing factor.
Alcohol consumption continues to increase in Belize, as well as other substance abuse, among our youths.
Studies after studies show that increased psycho-social stress causes people, especially young people, to seek forms of escapism.
Drugs and alcohol have, and continues, to be the preferred methods to escape the realities of a world that seems to be getting harsher by the day.
Crime, especially murder, have reached all time highs in the past 8 years in Belize.
Why is it that nothing seems to be working in Belize?
Are we applying the best known methods that are already showing significant success in countries in different parts of the world?
"The Icelandic Method seems to be working quite well in reducing drugs and alcohol consumption among youths."
Because of the method Iceland is applying, today their country tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens.
The percentage of 15 and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 percent in 1998 to 5 percent in 2016.
The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 percent to 7 percent.
Those smoking cigarettes every day, fell from 23 percent to just 3 percent.
"How did Iceland do it?"
The way they have achieved this turnaround has been both radical and evidence-based, but it has relied a lot on what might be termed enforced common sense.
If Belize was to adopt the Icelandic model, it could benefit the general psychological and physical wellbeing of thousands of youths, not to mention the government's coffers and especially the broader society.
A lot of our youths are using more and more alcohol and drugs such as marijuana - I am not against marijuana, however, it is still a drug and abusing any substance can and will cause harm to your body and mind.
"Why are so many of our young Belizeans involved in so much substance abuse?"
There are a lot of interest in why people take certain drugs.
Example: People would choose either heroin or amphetamines depending on how they like to deal with stress.
Heroin users want to numb themselves from stress;
Amphetamine users want to actively confront stress.
Experts all over the world have been asking important questions such as: why do people start using drugs? Why do they continue? When do they reach a threshold to abuse? When do they stop? And when do they relapse?
Why do they start? There’s availability; young people are risk-takers, they feel alienated, and some suffer with varying degrees of depression.
Why do they continue? Apparently young people are on the threshold for abuse before they even take a drug for the first time, and taking the drug subsequently stems from them coping with the stresses of life.
"Young people are getting addicted to changes in their brain chemistry. "
Most of the kids who are on the streets day in and day out, and who often get into conflict, are considered "active confronters". They are after a rush. They get it by being involved in different risk-taking and confrontational situations and activities, through stimulant drugs or a combination.
The main stimulant in Belize, which is due to its easy access and affordable cost, is alcohol.
Alcohol is a substance that alters your brain chemistry. It is a sedative, however, it sedates the brain's control first, which normally removes inhibitions, and in limited doses, reduce anxiety.
It is important to note that people can become addicted to anything:
This is considered behavioral addiction.
So, psychologists came up with an interesting idea: Why not develop a social movement around natural highs: where people can get high on their own brain chemistry - for, it seemed obvious to them that people want to change their consciousness, however, they want to avoid the destructive effects of drugs?
In 1992 a team of psychologists developed a program called Project Self-Discovery. This program offered young people natural-highs as an alternative to drugs and crime.
They identified young people via consultation with teachers, school nurses and counselors.
They took kids from the age of 14. These kids didn't see themselves as needing treatment, however they had problems with drugs or petty crime.
These kids weren't told they were being treated. They were told that they would be taught anything they wanted to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts.
The idea was that these different classes could provide different types of alterations in the kid's brain chemistry, and give them what they needed to cope better with life.
Some kids may want an experience that could help them reduce anxiety, others may crave a rush.
These kids also got important life-skills training, focusing on improving their thoughts about themselves and their lives, and the way they interact with other people.
"Drug Education Doesn't Work."
Most kids do not pay attention to drug education. Young people need life-skills so that they can act on the information from drug education.
Kids appreciated the benefits of Project Self-Discovery so much, that some stayed for five years, when they were initially told it would only last three months.
It has been identified that kids may very well need healthy alternatives to drugs and alcohol; not to be treated, but to stop them from drinking or taking drugs in the first place.
A questionnaire was developed and circulated in schools, focusing on 14, 15 and 16 year old kids.
Have you ever tried alcohol? If so, when did you last have a drink?
Have you ever been drunk?
Have you tried cigarettes? If so, how often do you smoke?
How much time do you spend with your parents?
Do you have a close relationship with your parents?
What kind of activities do you take part in?
Were among the questions that were asked.
The results of the survey alarmed the psychologists. In Iceland, nationally:
Almost 25% of kids were smoking every day.
Over 40% had gotten drunk in the past month.
They could even identify precisely which schools had the worst problems and which had the least.
They were even able to identify clear differences between the lives of kids who took up drinking, smoking and other drugs vs those who didn't.
"Important Factors Between More and Less Vulnerable Kids: Parents You Play a Very Important Role in Your Child's Life."
Less Vulnerable Kids:
Participated in organized activities, especially sports, at least 3 or 4 times per week.
Total time spent with parents during the week.
Feeling cared about at school.
Not being outdoors late at night.
"It is obvious something needs to be done in Belize."
In, Belize there has been all kinds of substance prevention efforts and programs, most of which were built on education. Kids are being warned about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, but it has been observed in developed countries like the US, that these programs were not working.
A different approach should be considered.
If this data has not yet been collected, surveys need to be developed and the data and insights from the research should be used to develop a new national plan, which should be gradually introduced.
"Laws Need to be Changed in Belize."
A few recommendations:
Develop a non-smoking legislation.
Ban tobacco and alcohol advertising.
Develop laws to establish in every school, parental organizations, so that link between parents and schools are strengthened.
Parents would be encouraged to attend talks on the importance of spending a quantity of time with their children rather than occasional "quality time," on talking to their kids about their lives, on knowing who their kids are friends with, and on keeping their children home in the evenings.
Pass a law that prohibits children between the ages of 13 and 16 from being outside after 10 p.m.
Introduce agreements for parents to sign. The content would need to be developed. Example: For kids 13 and up, parents can pledge to follow all the recommendations, and also not allow their kids to have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors, and to keep an eye on the wellbeing of other children. These agreements would educate parents and also help to strengthen their authority in the home. Parents are parents, not friends of their children. They need to establish crystal clear communication and authority.
Increase State funding for organized sport, music, art, dance and other identified clubs, to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group, and to feel good, rather than through using alcohol and drugs.
Help kids from low (poor)-income families so that they can take part. Example: families can be given a Leisure Card per child with a specified amount so that the family can pay for recreational activities.
Fund free parenting sessions every year.
We desperately need more funding for mental health institutions (private and public) and also focus on stress management.
Funding for villages as well as towns and cities so as to offer free sports activities Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Offer free ride service for low-income families, to help kids who don’t live close to the facilities to attend.
Surveys should continue every year so that the State can have up-to-date, reliable data and the system tweaked.
Between 1997 and 2012, the percentage of kids aged 15 and 16 who reported often or almost always spending time with their parents on weekdays doubled – from 23 per cent to 46 per cent – and the percentage who participated in organized sports at least four times a week increased from 24 per cent to 42 per cent. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking, drinking and cannabis use in this age group plummeted.
To save our Belizean youths we must establish and continue to increase
protective factors and reduce risk factors, which empirical evidence shows that substance use and abuse will go down.
These programs need to be localized in villages, towns and cities, so that schools, parents and officials can see exactly what problems exist in which areas.
A problem I identified as an inhibition in all faucets of our country is the direct involvement of our national government and its tendency in trying to micro-manage and macro-manage the state of the nation and the policies that affect it.
Individual communities need to be more autonomous, since Belize is very culturally diverse.
This would be a prime opportunity to start rolling out the village bye-laws so as to give villages access to untapped resources. This would allow these programs to be more self-sustaining. This way the Central Government cannot complain they do not have the resources.
There is a solution somewhere on this planet to address just about every social and economic issues we have in Belize, however, we need to apply meritocracy, pragmatism, and transparency to everything we do to solve the problems that ails our nation.
In conclusion, as a nation we must all acknowledge that the road we are going down is not healthy.
Whether you benefit from this dysfunctional system or not, the least you can do, now, is to change your mindset.
"Many of us are comfortable with old problems, but we should start embracing new solutions."
Many factors have divided us, however I am certain that you will all agree that saving our youths is easily a unifying idea.