“A substance use prevention strategy like ‘Listen First’ is not only science-based, but very sensitive to people’s struggles, the plight of substance use and what’s needed to bolster the youth for their health and well-being, which is central to human rights.”
How did you become involved with ‘Listen First’?
We had the privilege of working with the UNODC in 2020 when ‘The Science of Care’ was launched. The materials were extremely valuable and timely, especially as the lock-downs forced families to spend more time together and become more engaged and involved in each other’s lives. The materials gave parents science-based information and techniques to gain valuable skills in communicating and helping their children cope with stressors and pressures that may lead them to substance use. Also, they were understandable and appealing, with animated videos and matching fact sheets. Sometimes people can be interested or even entertained, but science-based information is the way to make real change happen.
Does substance use continue to be a challenge in the USA? What can we do to reduce the risk of youth getting involved in substance use?
The use of illicit substances continues to be a challenge in the United States and around the world. Given the extraordinary challenges and pressures related to the global pandemic, many people remain at risk for substance use. Youth may be at even greater risk as they may be isolated from their peers or feeling ill-equipped to deal with the external pressures and internal stressors related to returning to school. Therefore, we have to educate everyone about the dangers of substance use. If we all work together, we can reduce the risk of youth getting involved with substance use and we must because young people are our future. ‘Listen First’ is unique because it considers the perceptions of youth, the dynamics of the family, and the environment in which we all exist. This global effort recognizes that youth do not live in isolation; they are part of a family and a community. Together, we need to support youth and work with parents, educators, and community members to help them learn effective ways to cope with stress and overcome struggles. We have to leverage relationships, organizations, and community members to get the word out about substance use prevention. Just telling young people that substance use is wrong is not enough. We need to take it another step further. I think it is all about trust; building trust can have a real impact, and we can build trust by relying heavily on the ‘science space’ for our messaging. Accurate health information is critical, and the consequences of misinformation can be dire. ‘Listen First’ materials can be trusted as they are based on science.
What are your thoughts on the link between substance use prevention and human rights?
I’m not a human rights expert, but I do believe that a way to ensure human rights is for us, individually and collectively, to do what we can to ensure people’s dignity, safety, health, and good quality of life. But, unfortunately, substance use seems to minimize and negate health, safety, and even dignity. We’re all part of the human race and part of humanity, no matter where you are from. And I think a lot of young people may not feel that way. In my experience, youth are sometimes overlooked in the discussion about human rights, but they too deserve to be treated with dignity, to be assured access to health, to be protected from harm, and to have a chance to live and grow in their community. A substance use prevention strategy like ‘Listen First’ is not only science-based but very sensitive to people’s struggles, the plight of substance use, and what’s needed to bolster youth for their health and well-being, which is central to human rights. We need young people to engage, to ‘buy-in’; to do that, we must be more patient, be inclusive, and help young people feel like they belong to not one particular race but the whole human race.
UNODC will soon be releasing the next phase of ‘Listen First’, focusing on social and emotional skill development. In what ways can you envision sharing these materials with others in your community?
I am delighted and excited at this next phase of ‘Listen First’, focusing on social and emotional skill development as a foundation for substance use prevention. There is a lot of anger and anxiety in the world today, and I think the ‘Listen First’ materials can help to lower that a bit. The materials are fun and engaging. Substance use prevention is a serious topic and an important thing, but the new series involves a magical community where young people can see themselves having super skills. You are giving young people hope and allowing them to see themselves make the biggest difference in the world. And they can. Among my areas of expertise are diversity, belonging, and understanding. And central to understanding are social and emotional skills. These skills are also the core of a strong foundation to address challenges, coping, and problem-solving throughout our lives.
We intend to share the materials among our institutions, organizations, and communities with which we work. Also, I will be a keynote speaker at a conference of school counselors and would be delighted to share with the group of experts on the frontlines of working with youth. One of the biggest challenges youth faces is peer pressure, and among the most intense pressures is engagement with using illicit substances. So I commend UNODC and the creators of ‘Listen First’ for their vision in this next phase to support and engage educators, healthcare workers, policymakers, parents, and substance use prevention providers in equipping our youth around the world with much-needed skills in prevention, and also in life. We have to meet the youth where they are.
Dr. George E. Koonce Jr, Ph.D., is currently Senior Vice President for University Relations at Marian University, USA, as well as serves on Boards of Directors for local, national, and international organizations. Dr. Koonce also had a highly successful earlier career as a professional athlete in the NFL, including a Superbowl XXXI Championship. He is also co-founder of Team Humanity Inc and its subsidiary Touchdown for Humanity, a global movement to address disparities within and across communities, cultures, and countries.
Made possible with the generous support of France.