Tell us about your work and UTRIP!
I used to work in the government on illicit drugs and alcohol policy. But I got fed up with the paperwork and bureaucracy and wanted to do more in practice. My wife, Sanela Talić, and I wanted to bring more evidence-based programs to Slovenia, and we started the Institute for Research and Development (UTRIP). We implemented various programs, amongst them the Strengthening Families program and Unplugged. We soon realized we could not change the situation without effective advocacy efforts. There is a strong connection between evidence-based policy and practice, and additionally sustainable funding, and the availability of different education and training programs in the field of prevention. Therefore, we try to be as broad as possible, find synergies, and seek the best outcomes possible.
What, in your view, constitutes an effective substance use prevention approach?
Having the right policy is an essential precondition, which also means better funding and a more strategic approach by the government. It is also crucial to mobilize communities with different local stakeholders working together in a systematic, structured way and building the prevention system at national and local levels, within schools and health, social and other services. We must develop infrastructure and the prevention system, meaning also education and training of the prevention workforce. You can have the perfect system, but without knowledge and skills, it can do more harm than good. It is also essential to work on "readiness" to convince professionals why it is important to work with evidence-based methods. Many refuse to accept evidence-based prevention because they don't want to change. They like to stay in their comfort zone, doing the same things as they have done for 30 years, even if it is ineffective. So to get them to change, it is important that they feel ownership of the process and see the benefits. It's a psychological and motivational issue. Sometimes we push too much on interventions, especially in schools. If we bring interventions to very chaotic schools, there is no use. First, we must deal with the school policy and climate, so that the whole school and parents support prevention as a systematic approach. We can start thinking about interventions when we have established these preconditions. If it is done too early, it can be a failure. So this will more or less be our future focus. It is a difficult task, but it is essential not to continue to repeat the same mistakes.
How does 'Listen First' fit into this?
During the pandemic, it became clear that the primary focus should be on parents and families. They were stuck at home without supportive social networks, so the timing for this kind of intervention was excellent. We liked the 'Listen First' messages: they are based on existing evidence, and they are to the point and short. We decided to translate 'Listen First' into Slovenian and connect them to our parenting programs to help parents and professionals that work in the field. We received positive feedback from parents and professionals struggling to find good online tools. And we decided to continue with ‘The Science of Skills’.
'Listen First' has reached one-quarter of Slovenia's population - how did you achieve this?
We have excellent relationships with other institutions and kindergartens, so we used these to disseminate the campaign widely. And, due to the quality of the materials, we were not afraid to approach national media. So we offered them to screen the videos and help people during the pandemic. It was a win-win situation. TV stations picked up the videos, and posters were distributed nationwide to kindergartens, schools, and health care centers where parents and families are present. These places where parents must wait for their children are ideal – they can read while waiting. To have a stronger impact on parents, we also used a method called "Gallery Walk". Teachers used them during parents' meetings to discuss interactively around these topics. Social services that had implemented our parenting programs also used them.
How did prevention professionals in Slovenia receive it?
The feedback from service providers, teachers, educators, kindergartens, and health and social services was very positive. Not only did they provide this information to parents, but they also used these materials and the knowledge in their daily work. They gained knowledge and skills in communicating, working with parents, and focusing on important issues. They recognized social and emotional skills and learning as important components of their work.
What is your advice for other organizations who want to use 'Listen First'?
They must recognize that it is not a stand-alone intervention. It has to be connected to other activities and programs as part of a wider approach. So if you are serious about prevention, and if you already have some structure or programs in place, especially for families or parents, then this material could benefit and make your work even better and more successful. We also know that interactivity has more effect, so I recommend activities focusing on interactions with the target groups. You can put posters on the wall or online, but you never know how many parents read them and if they understand the message. With the next phase of 'Listen First' starting in Slovenia with ‘The Science of Skills’, we will focus more on the interactive approach. We will prepare a more complex protocol for institutions on how to reach more parents.
What are your thoughts about the future for ‘Listen First’ in Slovenia?
We hope UNODC will continue to bring us more materials like this! It would be very difficult and expensive if we had to create them ourselves. It would be great to have materials for teenagers also and even older age groups, because they are the ones that have suffered the most during the pandemic, and there are very few evidence-based programs available for them. Another great thing about these materials is that they can be used worldwide. Children here in Slovenia watch the same movies and engage in the same social media as kids in the US or Thailand. Social and emotional learning and evidence substance use prevention is not a local issue. It is global, and it concerns us all!
Matej Košir is the Director of the Institute for Research and Development (UTRIP) in Slovenia and coordinates the national prevention network, "Prevention Platform." He has worked in alcohol, tobacco, and other drug prevention and advocacy for more than 22 years. In 2017, he was awarded the "Leading European Prevention Science Practitioner Honor" by the European Society for Prevention Research (EUSPR). In 2020, the Society for Prevention Research (SPR) awarded Matej and his wife, UTRIP co-founder Sanela Talić, the "International Collaborative Prevention Research Award." He is also President of the International Confederation of Alcohol, Tobacco, and other Drug Research Associations (ICARA) and Deputy Chairperson of the Vienna NGOCommittee on Drugs.
Made possible with the generous support of France.