As a Health Promotion Advisor, Suzanna Bijlsma is committed to the mental well-being of young people and she informs schools how they can prevent children and young people from using substances (increasingly younger). After a study trip to Iceland, she was inspired by how that country has minimized alcohol and drug use among young people in twenty years. And that they move more and are creative, which makes them feel better about themselves.
Suzanna has a monitoring function from her position within the GGD. How are young people in the Netherlands doing, what are they encountering and how can we improve their health? “You try to pick up signals from all sides how you can let the target group grow up as healthy as possible. I make connections between different lifestyle themes. For example, if someone is not feeling well, this may be related to little exercise or an unhealthy diet. You notice that everything is connected.”
Experimenting at an increasingly younger age
All studies show that children are experimenting with alcohol and drugs at an increasingly younger age. According to Suzanna, that is normal for children to experiment, but we all know how harmful certain substances are if you start using them. “We focus on information, lessons and help schools with an appropriate policy. I guide schools on how to deal with substance use. What makes young people use substances, why do they think it is necessary and why do they need it? I will work with these questions at school and class level. We also talk about nutrition and exercise, but substance use and mental wellbeing is a big part of my job.”
Three years ago she was allowed to go on a study trip to Iceland, a country that had the largest number of young users twenty years ago. This has now been turned 180 degrees. We can learn something from that, Suzanna thought. “They have a completely different approach there than an average other country in Europe. They have stopped educating people about how bad it is for you to use drugs and alcohol and that you shouldn’t do it anymore. They started looking at what young people need in terms of leisure, school and their environment. They have started offering young people structured leisure activities: healthier food at school and more exercise and creativity. This instead of hanging out in the village every afternoon. There was not much meaning to their day.”
Alcohol and drugs very expensive
In addition, Iceland has introduced some enforcement rules, such as a curfew. “Young people are not allowed to take to the streets without adults from a certain time. In addition, both alcohol and drugs are very expensive. It is not made any easier for them in that sense.” There was not just an integrated approach, according to Suzanna. It starts at the bottom with small interventions. “I talked to young people during the break. There was hot food in the canteen and all the young people did something sporty and cultural. That is professionally supervised. In addition, parents are done with work a little earlier, so that they are kind of obliged to eat together. Parents commit to certain agreements when they choose a school. There is also parental watch in the evening.”
Many of these rules and agreements will not happen in the Netherlands anytime soon, but Suzanna has brought home much of the so-called Icelandic approach. And is now planting seeds at schools and municipalities about this approach. “There are still steps to be taken in the Netherlands. Parties in Iceland are supervised by parents. In many cases, the parties in the Netherlands are facilitated by parents or allowed to turn a blind eye. There is still a world to win. The primary responsibility lies with the parents.”
“It’s about working together, as a community”
A number of pilots are currently being conducted, such as in Urk, to try the Icelandic approach in the Netherlands. This is a village where the sense of community is already strongly developed. “It’s about working together, as a community. The schools must participate, but also the catering industry, sports associations and canteens. Everyone has to want to cooperate.”
What subject would you like to teach at school?
“The profession of living. We are very performance-oriented in the Netherlands. It’s about getting better and pursuing happiness. It always has to be more. Then I think: we forget that there is also life. How do you view life? What do you like and what is important? I want to show that there is more than the consumer society. I would like to explore that with students.”
What kind of advice do people ask from you?
“When schools call me, they want advice about certain events and how to approach them. Something has happened and what is the best thing to do? Schools usually come up with practical questions. People hardly ever call me privately. I do get questions from friends about parenting. I am one of the first with children in our group of friends.”
Who inspires you?
“I recently read a book about the life of someone who grew up in the swamps. She inspired me because she did everything alone. She is a biologist who never went to school. You can achieve so much without thinking about this in advance or having to go to school for it. In any case, I find people who live from nature inspiring. I read a lot about that.”
What kind of reflection do you think the next generation needs?
“Perhaps the insight that we don’t always have to or want to achieve more. That at some point it’s enough. The generation that is growing up now is at the top and it squeaks and creaks on all sides. We can show that it is enough and that it can also be done in another way.”
What’s the best relationship advice you’ve ever received?
“Accept that everyone walks their own path and that you don’t have to stick to one form of relationship. It can also develop in other forms. It’s not so black and white: you have to get married and have children and then stay together forever. You can also move along in the development of each other.”
What does God mean to you?
“I don’t really believe in a God or any particular religion. But in the community you need to feel at home in a place. I do believe that there is something that we cannot always explain with science.”
Suppose tonight is your last supper, what would you eat, with whom and what is it about that evening?
“Then I would have dinner with my partner and kids at a vegan restaurant and I would try something new that I’ve never eaten before. We would talk about a beautiful memory that the children can take with them into the future.”
What do you value about yourself?
“My enthusiasm and my broad interests. And I think also my drive to connect people with each other in topics that they both find interesting. I see a hook and plant a seed there. That creates new contacts and opportunities.”
Who will be in the column next week?
“Every Wiss. She wrote Socrates on sneakers. She is a practical philosopher and she inspires me.”
“Parties in Iceland are supervised by parents. In many cases, the parties in the Netherlands are facilitated or turned a blind eye by parents”
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