Tuesday, February 4, 2014

It took a Study --- all you needed was visual observation!

There is an article posted on BBC and Al Jazeera and other news outlets that were discussing a study that was conducted in Russia.  The study stated that there is high rates of vodka consumption in and this leads to high death rates.  I have no problem with the findings, but I am just baffled that it took a study to figure this out.

I worked in Russia in 2006 - prior to that I had no knowledge of Russia nor of Russian culture so I was completely open to everything Russia had to offer.  Part of my job included discussions with the youth of Russia --- these youth were grimm!!!  

Most of the youth were not thinking of their future as many were concerned simply on how to get drunk and completely wasted in the quickest time possible (many of them succeeded on a daily basis!).  Walking down the streets around 2pm, you could see Russian youth and adults passed out drunk on the street - completely passed out!!   As it was Russia, most of them were passed out on vodka, and mostly bad versions of it that were cheaply sold by the 2-3 gallons (it was in liters but this American converted it!)  To gather this information, I did not need a study though.  All I needed were two eyes and some common sense.

In my opinion, the real study would be to figure out the causes or the reasons behind the high consumption rates and use those reasons to help figure out solutions; that is what we tried to do at least.

When I went to Russia, it was a fellowship program and part of our 'mission' was to 'help the youth of Russia through partnership with Russian organizations'.  When I got to Russia and went to meet with the partner (which was part of the Government agency on health), I was told the only solution was to 'stop the youth from drinking'!.  Yeah, that's going to work.

Youth are going to try alcohol (and any other thing you tell them not to do).  That is the point of being an adolescent.  Studies have shown that as we develop into adolescence, the part of the brain that is curious expands and the part of us that is afraid or scared to do something decreases -- we take more risks when we are young and this what is to be expected.   The risk-taking can either be positive (innovative ideas in technology and science) or positive (ridiculous stunts that get you killed).  There is a difference and telling youth to stop it all is not going to work.  

This is why I did not encourage our partner to take that tactic, but rather we start having discussions with the youth (and youth groups) to figure out why they were turning to alcohol.  The discussions led to some really interesting insights:

1) We drink because its cold and we want to be warm - I went to Southern Siberia Russia in September and it was already -60C.  I wore 10 layers when I went outside and 7 layers inside, and that is because all of the buildings were Soviet-style apartment blocks where the heating definitely wasn't doing it's job
2) We drink because we are bored - many of the kids were cutting school because the classroom sizes had increased and the teachers were not paying attention to them; so if they left they really weren't being missed in school.  Outside of school, there were movie theaters (for the older youth) and clubs (for the young adults) but nothing really for the 9-15 year old's to do.  And these were the ages were you first start experimenting with alcohol and drugs, and if you don't have much to do then might as well do this.
3) Alcohol and cigarettes were cheap and plenty available.  I was working one day and was thirsty so went to the kiosk (they have little kiosks about every 2 blocks with small items such as beer, candy, water, and snacks) to buy some water; they didn't have any.  I had to pass 5 kiosks before I found water, yet every one of them were plenty stocked with loads of alcohol.
4) why not drink?  what is the purpose of abstaining, there is nothing for me! - the unemployment rate for young adults and youth (and for adults) was extremely high in Russia, and especially in cities further away from the Kremlin (as Southern Siberia was).  The youth only saw a darkened tunnel, they could not see any light.  Not only was unemployment an issue, but so was health and nutrition.  Because it was really cold most of the time, the diet consisted of protein-rich dishes (with LOTS of sour cream and butter in EVERYTHING) to keep the body warm.  The problem was that after consuming this heavy food, no physical activity was being done.  So while the body was being kept warm, the diet was damaging to the heart and lead to high rates of heard disease and cholesterol problems.  In addition to health problems, there were also high rates of suicide amongst the Russia adult population.  The life expectancy for males was 51years while for females it was 56years.  If the heart disease or cholesterol didn't harm you, you were going to harm yourself because you didn't see a way out.
5) everyone around me drinks so why not me - the culture of drinking was pervasive in Russia.  After work I took the mini-bus home and on the mini-bus they were passing out boxes of wine for everyone to sip and share (including the driver - not a good idea every, especially on iced and snowy roads).  

It was sad and extremely depressing to hear all this, but it was good and necessary to hear.  These problems existed and needed to be addressed.  Unfortunately, we were only there for a short time and we knew what we were not going to solve this problem.  We decided that we needed to lay the foundation and framework on which they (the Russian youth) could build solutions themselves.  There were some Russian Youth organizations that existed, but they were unorganized and did not communicate with each other; more importantly they didn't have a purpose.  We got them together in one-room, had them talk to each other, meet and discuss the problems, and come with up a purpose for the organization that would help lead to solutions to the problems they were seeing around them.

More studies are not needed on what the problems are - everyone already knows what problems exist in their communities.  All you need to do is ASK them.  The communities have been living with these problems on a daily basis so they see them; most of them have even thought of solutions to the problems.  What the communities do not have are the means and resources to get their solutions into actions - how to partner, how to take the first step.  Hopefully that is the direction we will be going in.  Talking with the community, listening to the community and working with the community on shared goals and direction 

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