VOICES: GILBERTO GERRA

<h5>Director of Prevention, Innovation and Research Unit, Mental Health and Addiction Department, Public Health System, Parma, Italy (Former Chief, UNODC Prevention Branch and founder of ‘Listen First’)</h5>
Director of Prevention, Innovation and Research Unit, Mental Health and Addiction Department, Public Health System, Parma, Italy (Former Chief, UNODC Prevention Branch and founder of ‘Listen First’)

“Adults need to 'listen first' to hear about the expectations, desires, dreams, needs but also suffering, frustration, social isolation, and loneliness that young people experience. Active listening is the foundation upon which adults can provide effective support and care.”

Why was Listen First important for you?

Because it was trying to suggest something new for parents. Parents are obsessed with giving moralistic guidance. They say things like, “Do this. Be careful. Don’t put yourself at risk. This paints a very boring picture.” We were thinking about something brilliant, something not boring, something exciting. If you remember the first video, we included a girl going out the window getting herself in trouble on the river, in the mountains, even in the desert. It was a very fun and exciting opportunity for the child, not something boring. The message for parents being when children experience boredom they may be more at risk, so it is important to keep it fun and exciting.

Was that something new in terms of prevention programs?

Yes. The other prevention programs were speaking about drugs, dangerous behavior, and risky behavior. We were trying to propose something framed as an adventure, an adventure with rules or with monitoring but creating an adventure for the child. And the main focus of ‘Listen First’ is very much grounded in effective and science-based prevention. It is about engagement, how young people use initiative. That should be something where the adolescents see themselves not as targets of prevention, but as the first actor or active protagonist of prevention.

What was the process then around the development of ‘Listen First’?

Before the UN General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem in 2016, we were trying to find a motto or inspirational appeal to countries around the world in support of substance use prevention. Our partners from France helped us to focus on support for adults opening their ears and hearts to children and adolescents. This means that adults need to listen first to the children, hear about their expectations, desires, dreams, and needs but also suffering, frustration, social isolation, and loneliness that young people experience. Previously some experts said it was all about parents giving rules and being an authority. That’s a basic misunderstanding. The first thing for any authority figure is to start listening. That is not renouncing their power or authority; it is increasing their power by being close to the children, open to listening to youth.

Active listening is the foundation upon which adults can provide effective support and care, practice a warm child-rearing style, and promote the growth and development of skills and resiliency. And finally, with the support and inputs from France, we wanted to focus on building interpersonal relationships, modeling an environment of respect, and helping adults to create opportunities for the development of consistent rules within the context of love and rational motivations. The ultimate goal is to support effective parenting skill development that builds trusting and autonomous youth who will grow, thrive, and contribute to the larger community. But in 2016, ‘Listen First’ was only a small joy, a small box or gift to those who were able to appreciate it. Perhaps it was not publicized enough or didn’t have enough volume to become something concrete possible to be adopted by member states. Now, I think that is already more stimulating with the new materials of this year; I’ve seen many more developments now and could imagine a sequence of training for parents based on each video.

Does science guide prevention?

Yes, there is science behind effective substance use prevention. UNODC has reviewed the available science and compiled the information into the UNODC and WHO International Standards on Drug Use Prevention. This document provides support to policymakers and implementers who are making decisions about how to most effectively implement evidence-based prevention. But we can't forget that before selecting specific prevention programs, there are general conditions that can be strengthened and are found to be protective. For example, promoting conditions that foster positive bonding in the family, creating opportunities for secure and organized parent-child attachments, and building school connectedness to decrease drop-out rates and increase retention in schools. Approaching prevention from this systemic approach will require a significant focus on reducing inequalities and creating profound socioeconomic changes. For example, increasing social protection policies for children, such as prohibiting child labor and protecting children and youth from situations of abuse, would be one of many ways to increase the protective factors related to substance use prevention.

Is prevention the responsibility of parents alone or are there others that can support prevention messaging?

Effective prevention involves a variety of social actors supporting a clear and consistent prevention message. It means involving all stakeholders that intersect with children as part of an educational community that listens to young people. This educational community can and should include people working in public health, public security, schools, sports and recreation, and religious positions. One of the strong factors is support for the transfer of cultural traditions, values, ideals, and beliefs as they contribute to the development of the child. For example, involving children and adolescents in doing something for disadvantaged peers will help them learn to ‘listen’ to others, including the disadvantaged, and fighting indifference. Decreasing school dropouts is one of the most powerful tools for prevention because if you look at children remaining in school until the 12th or 13th grade, they have almost half of the substance use of children who are staying on the street.

Can you share some summary thoughts about Listen First?

‘Listen First’ is a playful and fun way to disseminate science-based prevention that targets adults widely. It is meant to be a part of a larger evidence-based substance use prevention system and not as a stand-alone activity. The materials help adults to see the importance of giving children their undivided time with consideration for the child's dignity, creativity, and view of the future. When we say we want youth engaged in the community, it is not youth engaged in doing what the adults have decided youth should do. But children and adolescents should be engaged in the community, because they are brainstorming about what to do and designing their future, to grow as adults. Adolescence especially is a period of dreaming. Being able to listen to the dreams of children and adolescents could be a real new attitude and change of mentality in education.

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Made possible with the generous support of France.