• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 24th September, 2015

Life skills strategy aims for delayed first-use of legal substances

Alcohol and tobacco use are legal for adults in most countries around the world. Preventive interventions with children and young people must realistically focus on delaying first use and promoting responsible use rather than abstinence, according to the originator of a life skills program in Germany.

Karina Weichold, a developmental psychologist at the University of Jena, notes in the German context that almost all youth try out alcohol (10 per cent being regular drinkers) and three out of four try cigarettes (including 13 per who smoke regularly). Such “normative” use of legal substances highlights a need for universal prevention interventions in schools, such as IPSY – the programme she and colleagues have developed and tested over ten years.

IPSY (which stands for Information + Psychosocial Competence = Protection) targets students age 11 to 13 and is delivered during 33 hours of class time over three years by teachers that have received special training. It teaches them social skills, such as empathetic listening and communication for use in personal and group contexts as well as strategies for resisting unwelcome peer pressure. The preventive focus increases with time on handling everyday-life scenarios where they are offered cigarettes or alcohol.

After pilot testing, IPSY was evaluated in a large-scale study involving 1,700 students in more than 40 schools in the eastern state of Thuringia. In a quasi-experiment, the schools were assigned either to take part in the programme or to a control group that was both socially and demographically very similar.

Participation in IPSY resulted in significant, positive effects including delayed onset of using alcohol and cigarettes and reductions in the prevalence and frequency of use compared with the control group. Students in the intervention group were assessed as having significantly better life skills as well as competencies and knowledge specifically related to substance use. Bonding and positive feelings towards school were also significantly stronger among IPSY students than in the control group.

Boys and girls both benefitted from IPSY in terms of school bonding, general life skills and reduced substance use. In addition, significantly improved knowledge about self-confident and effective communication in groups was found among girls – a welcome discovery given external evidence of a trend towards decreasing self-assurance among young women during early and mid-adolescence.

A longitudinal follow-up to the evaluation is still progressing, but results up to nine years after young people completed the program suggest that most of its positive effects persisted, albeit not as strong as during the three years of program implementation.

Looking back, Professor Weichold underlines the importance of rooting preventive programs like IPSY in a sound theoretical model that draws on empirical evidence concerning the origins of adolescent substance use, as well as information on its prevalence among adolescents and relevant risk and protective factors to be addressed through intervention.

An understanding of the social and psychological contexts in which young people use tobacco and alcohol is also important, including wanting to achieve high peer status, seeking ways to demonstrate their autonomy and meeting romantic or sexual partners. Substance use may also be seen by adolescents as a coping strategy when under stress, anxiety or threat.

The IPSY programme has been successfully implemented and evaluated in Austria and Italy as well as Germany. Professor Weichold also reports on less successful efforts to persuade the authorities in Thuringia and other jurisdictions to implement IPSY in all schools.

The translation of evidence-based programs for preventing and restricting youth substance use is, she says “urgently needed in order to avoid a waste of limited financial and personal resources and to promote positive and health developmental pathway from adolescence to adult life.”

Weichold, K. (2014). Translation of etiology into evidence‐based prevention: The life skills program IPSY. New Directions for Youth Development, 2014 (141), 83-94. doi:10.1002/yd.20088

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