It’s December! Schoolies is almost over, but for many young Australians there’s still a long hot summer of Christmas and New Year celebrations ahead, as well as the fun of music festivals. Of course, there’ll be risks as well: too much alcohol, too much sun, too little sleep and the temptation of drugs can make the party season pretty punishing.

At Australia21, some of us were into that scene fairly recently, but for others it was a long time ago! It’s one of the ways Australia21 is unique: within our own ranks we cross several generational divides. We like to treat age as irrelevant and experience as timeless. What we all have in common is that we’ve survived and thrived and we want to see others do the same.

Australia21 has done a lot of research into the use of alcohol and other drugs in Australia and the evidence is clear: preventing and reducing harm is far more important than punishing people for their mistakes. There’ll always be someone who goes too far, no matter how much good advice they’re given. What’s important is that they learn to take better care of themselves, their friends and their communities, so everyone is safer. A good way to encourage that is to talk openly an honestly about the realities and how to avoid lasting damage.

So now Australia21 brings you a snapshot of what life was like for some of us, when we were 18, and our own tips for surviving the summer ahead. Enjoy!

Emmi Teng: Look out for your mates

Australia21 Honorary Youth Adviser

Youth Justice Psychologist

Ahhh the high of the summer festival season after surviving Year 12! No more study or exams — just you, your best mates, music, and the taste of freedom! Is this real life?

Where will you all be next year? How will things change? So many mixed emotions… it’s enough to get anyone keen for a drink (or ten!).

It’s normal to want to go hard with your celebrations — you’ve worked hard all year, you deserve it! But remember to be aware of your own limits. Don’t forget to eat, have some water and pace yourself. Blacking out is not much fun, and a great way to ruin your day or night (especially if you have severe FOMO!) If something goes wrong, the paramedics are there to help you, so be honest with them.

I had the best time at Schoolies and the summer after Year 12, but in the end that wasn’t down to how smashed I got. It was about the rare chance to stop and breathe a collective sigh of relief for what had been, get excited about the possibilities of what was to come, and savour exactly where we were right then.

You’ve made it. So look out for your mates, and make the most of it!

Mick Palmer: No-one deserves to die Australia21 Director Emeritus Former Australian Federal Police Commissioner & NT Commissioner When I came to Australia with my parents and two sisters I was a scrawny little kid with weak sight that had me wearing glasses with a patch over one eye. But I had spent a year at one of the roughest schools in England because my father wanted to toughen me up, so I knew a defensive trick or two. The palpable tensions that then existed between Pommy and Aussie kids in some settings caused me to try and prove myself in ways I should not have done. Drugs in those days were scarce amongst my peers but we all found ways to drink alcohol long before we should have — because it was illegal and risky (and therefore attractive), because we wanted to prove we could handle it and because, for a while, it made us feel good. Of course none of us really could handle it and none of us felt good for too long. Binge drinking carries a risk that when young, very few recognise. I was lucky to come out the other end; many of my early friends did not.

As a young police officer, I witnessed many fine young men and women make mistakes with drug taking for similar reasons I had with alcohol as a younger man. Sometimes with fatal consequences. Later a friend, who coached his sons’ football teams and was a caring father, lost both of his sons to heroin overdoses in their late teens and early 20’s. Neither had confided in him that they used drugs or had a problem.

I initially had little if any sympathy for people who took drugs, or for the consequences they often suffered. But time taught me lessons and hopefully a little wisdom. I became convinced that the risks associated with illicit drug use far outweigh any short term highs and benefits, but also that Australia’s current prohibition-focused Illicit Drugs Policy aggravates the danger to those who use drugs and isolates the very people who are most likely to need support.

As a lawyer and a police officer I came to understand that the vast majority of drug using Australians are decent young men and women, highly unlikely to commit any serious crime and certainly not deserving to die or be influenced to lie to their parents, friends, police or paramedics, simply to avoid trouble or embarrassment to their family. They certainly do not deserve to be put at risk because the drug they purchased was corrupted and was not what they believed they were taking. Replacing sniffer dogs with drug testing and advisory centres would be a significant step in remedying this problem.

Of course, life itself is a risk and everyone takes risks in the process of living. My message to young people is “You only get to go around once — make sure you make the most of your opportunity.” To Governments, I say  “Have the courage and decency to recognise that our current illicit Drugs Policy is badly broken and ineffective; replace it with one that genuinely reduces harms by protecting those who need our support and only punishes those who genuinely deserve to be punished.”

Even scrawny kids in glasses, with a bit of protection and support – and perhaps a little luck — should be able to make the most of their opportunities.