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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.

Dr Lynne Reeder: Risk taking has an upside Australia21 Director & founder of the Mindful Futures Network Adjunct Research Fellow at Federation University & meditation teacher We all know that risk-taking is part of growing up and that it can actually helps teens to develop their independence and identities on the way to becoming adults. So for many young Australians, the end of school for many young Australians provides an opportunity to consider the role of risk-taking in their growth and development. As a teenager I could have done with a little more risk-taking in my life. I remember that as a private school student the worst thing I could have done was not wear gloves with my uniform when walking down the street!

So there is a balance to be made between rule-based learning and learning through novelty seeking. When done well, risk-taking can help young people find out what they can do and, importantly to gain insight into the meaning of their lives.

The neuro-psychiatrist, Dr Dan Siegel, notes that ‘the part of the brain that makes decisions and balances emotions, is under construction until the mid-20s’, which is why social engagement has both a downside (peer pressure) and an upside (social intelligence). Risk-taking done well is the courage to go into a world that is ever more challenging, and why we all need to be really supportive of teens as they move through this period. Encouraging school leavers and other young Australians to make the best of their social engagement, while remaining open to what Siegel calls the ‘work of adolescence’, means they can look after each other with a higher level of self-awareness and emotion regulation when their brain seeks out too much novelty. So events like Schoolies Week and music festivals become an opportunity for a great adventure, adding to their positive life experiences.

The Mindful Futures Network is collecting information on how the science of mindfulness, empathy and compassion is being applied within organisations, including in schools and universities and studies are already finding that when students practice mindfulness they are calmer, more attentive and less bullying takes place. In that context, I encourage school leavers remember to take a breath, before engaging in any novelty or peer-pressured risk taking!

Dr Alex Wodak: Keep the communication channels open  Australia21 Director President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation & former Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney

I recently came across a newspaper account of my first political activism. Three of us dressed in suits and hats stood up with bowed heads during an election meeting of Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1966 in protest at Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. We also joined demonstrations against the visit of South Vietnam’s Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, because we believed western intervention was as immoral as it was futile. It wasn’t until years later that we found out Ky had been one of the world’s biggest heroin pushers, encouraging US servicemen to get hooked on their tours of duty.

Some of those troops brought heroin to Australia on Rest and Recreation leave (aka ‘Intoxication and Intercourse’ leave). The Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar at Kings Cross in Sydney was a popular destination for the visitors and many young Australian men and women were introduced to heroin there, only about 50 metres from where the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre now operates.

Somehow these elements have intertwined and defined my life.

The combination of risk taking, inexperience and psychoactive drug use is quite a cocktail, but all too often drug education is hysterical. The risks are exaggerated while attitudes to the considerable risks associated with legal drugs remain relaxed and permissive.

‘Youth is wasted on the young’ is a frequently cited quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. But youth is also a time when young people try new things; it’s a rite of passage as students move into an adult world of growing pressure and ever-increasing uncertainty and risk.

Every generation of parents is horrified by the fads and fashions of the new generation including their hairstyles, clothes, music and drug taking. Parents hope experimentation doesn’t end in too many painful mistakes and that lessons are learned. The best thing they can do is ensure that the channels of communication remain open and that risk taking is kept within reasonable bounds.

Deb Rice: Dance like there’s no tomorrow

Australia21 Director & Communications Manager

Communications Strategist & former news reporter

I was the youngest of six kids and by the time I was a teenager Mum and Dad were pretty relaxed in their parenting. Even so, escaping with friends after our final exams in 1984 brought a delicious taste of freedom. We headed to Terrigal on the NSW central coast to smoke and drink without restriction and work on our tans before our Formal.  The pubs weren’t very strict and many of us had already been going to them for years, often with older brothers and sisters. It was the place to catch up with people and see live music, before social media and multiple summer festivals were a thing. It makes me cringe to think how humiliatingly drunk we got at times, but we looked after each other, always making sure everyone made it home without doing too much they’d regret later. As far as drugs went, I steered well clear because the year before I finished school my cousin had overdosed on heroin, leaving behind a newborn baby and heartbroken family.

I went to uni in WA and for two years I lived on college in a quiet country town where there was no public transport and bugger all to do at the best of times. If you didn’t play Aussie Rules or have a horse the major weekend pastime was getting drunk and/or stoned. It shouldn’t have been necessary, but more than once I faked getting trashed just to fit in. I’m sure I’m not the only young Australian who’s done that.

I didn’t have the budget to party for long anyway, but I did have one major asset: an old car handed down from my brothers. Being the designated driver was a good excuse to stay sober and it earned me a few drinks as well as keeping me in cigarettes and petrol money. It also meant I didn’t have to rely on lifts from people who weren’t so careful about staying under the limit. Despite that, I was a passenger in two crashes when the driver had been drinking heavily: once in a ute that rolled and another when we swerved in front of a semi-trailer and slammed into a tree — my collar bone was broken and it’s still a surprise that we weren’t all killed.

Another defence I still use is dancing. I’m usually one of the first out on the floor: it means there’s less time to drink, less pressure to keep up with others and less chance of suffering the next day from whatever I have consumed. Plus, it has the added bonus of pepping up a dull or awkward occasion and making you look like the life of the party instead of a party pooper.

There were a few risks I didn’t manage well though. Four years ago my own teenagers were almost left motherless when a malignant melanoma had to be cut out of one of those legs I fried at Terrigal and on many other beaches. I should have used sunscreen or covered up. Also, my mother died from lung cancer even though she’d never smoked and I worry about whether I gave up soon enough to prevent a time bomb ticking in my body.

By the way, my cousin’s baby is now an impressive young woman with a legal career. Pity her mum didn’t live to see it.

Paul Barratt: No night out is worth risking life and limb

Australia21 Chair

Principal of AADI Defence & former Secretary of the Federal Department of Primary Industries and Energy & the Federal Department of Defence

The end of the final school year marks two important transitions for tens of thousands of young Australians. It means the end of the close supervision of school and care of parents, and an entry into the much more self-directed worlds of tertiary study, vocational training or the world of work. And for many it marks a move away from home. Associated with these transitions is arrival at an age where one can legally purchase alcohol and cigarettes, and is likely to be presented with the temptation to experiment with illicit drugs.

The world that today’s school leavers are entering is much more complex and difficult to navigate than the one in which I made these transitions at the end of the 1950s into the mid-60s. I completed the NSW Leaving Certificate at age 16, and did not turn 17 until after I had started at university, so I was in my second year by the time I could legally enter a pub. The only drugs we confronted in my university environment were nicotine and alcohol.

I was smart enough not to take up smoking, but on a fully residential campus the socialisation associated with drinking alcohol was not to be missed. For me and most of my friends it was more about the company and the fun than the alcohol — not that we were abstemious, far from it; over the course of an evening we would put away significant quantities of full strength beer (light beer was a later invention). Sadly, not everyone was unscathed and some people with a very bright future ahead of them were never able to realise their potential.

The university was out of town and there were no evening buses, so everyone headed for the pub by car. There were no prescribed blood alcohol limits in those days, and no random breath testing, just a ban on “driving under the influence”, which was basically a matter for the police to judge if one happened to be pulled up. There was no system of “designated drivers” — the owner of the vehicle participated to the full along with everyone else — and there were no seat belts. Somehow we all survived, but one or two were involved in horrific crashes and carried lifelong scars.

Looking back on those times from the vantage point of more than half a century, my advice would be work hard, play hard and enjoy life, give illicit drugs a complete miss, and indulge all your youthful excesses with moderation. No evening, or succession of evenings, can be so good that it is worth risking future prospects, let alone life and limb.

Rebecca Bunn: Never be afraid to ask for help

Australia21 Community Engagement Manager

Managing Director of the Imprisonment Observatory at Monash University

Schoolies and the festival season are an inescapable part of life for young Australians. It is a time to celebrate achievements, spend time with friends and, most of all, to have fun! Of course, when alcohol and other drugs are involved, there are always risks – but we need to be clear about what risks are attributable to these substances themselves, and what added risks we create in our responses to them.

While young people will always seek to have fun in ways that older generations may find hard to understand, there needs to be respectful conversation and understanding about the risks they might take. Listening to the views of young people themselves is crucial; and this is what our Smarter about Drugs project has shown us. Young people are ready and willing to contribute to discussions and debates on Australian drug policy, because they are the ones overwhelmingly affected by it — especially at this time of the year.

As Alcohol and Other Drug experts Yvonne Bonomo and David Stanley shared at the launch of our Smarter about Drugs Conversation Pack this year, young people need to feel safe coming forward and asking for help. Regardless of the choices they might make in relation to drug use, young people do not deserve to die because of those choices. We can, and should, do better.

Music festivals have been a staple part of my growing up in Australia, and I hope that all young people who wish to experience them can continue to do so safely, and enjoyably. I also know that the most valuable advice we can give young people at this time of year is not further scaremongering, but the following message: Look after yourself, look after your mates, and never be afraid to ask for help.

Dr Steven Cork: Know your limits

Australia21 Director

EcoInsights consultant & Adjunct Professor with the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy

Testing the limits on the Gold Coast: my part-time job in Year 12!

When we are young we think we have endless ability to bounce back from anything, including the effects of alcohol and other drugs. That ability to bounce back is often called “resilience” — something Australia21 has researched for many years. ​Sometimes we think drugs or alcohol will actually increase our ability to cope. But none of us can anticipate what effects these substances will have on us and the impact on the resilience of our bodies and minds.

As a school leaver, I was lucky (although I did not think so at the time) because I could not drink enough to get really silly without getting sick. But a friend who thought he could drink lots and still stay functional hit and killed a pedestrian when he was driving home one night. He ended up spending many years in a mental health facility trying to cope with what he had done. His resilience was blown to pieces. He was hit particularly hard by this event because he was such a caring person who would never have knowingly put another person at risk.

Another school friend, who was handsome, clever and set to become a well-paid professional, liked to experiment with drugs and alcohol. He always had great stories to tell after a night out, about the crazy things he got up to while under the influence. 45 years later he is unemployed and barely functional because of his dependence on alcohol. His habit started when his resilience was high, but that just allowed him to keep going until it was eroded to almost nothing.

Finally, a young friend of my family who left school just a few years ago thought he was invincible and also liked to show his friends how well he could cope with large amounts of alcohol. He did very well at school and looked set for a career in any profession he chose. He did not realise his tolerance to alcohol would lead to psychological problems and psychotic behaviour that threatened his own life and that of others. Under alcohol’s influence he tried to kill a family member and even threatened his friends. For a critical period in his life his resilience was overcome and he became about as non-functional as one can get.

Those who have had bad experiences wish they had taken things slower and more steadily, so they understood their body’s and their mind’s resilience before they put it to the test.  Finding those limits gradually and devising strategies for staying away from them is one secret to being a resilient person. And, like testing a bridge to see how much weight it can take, loading the system up until it collapses is likely to leave us up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

Deb Lavis: Education about alcohol and other drugs should start early

Australia21 Director

Business owner & Director of ECOtvc

From early days, incredibly shy, I watched and listened to the world around me, trying to make sense of it. In primary school I had travelled by sea to live in the UK for 2 years with my family, learning to survive in a tough council school in central London, to make new friends, and to discover new cultures. My later primary years in Australia were highlighted with great friendships. These friendships, along with the challenges and richness that I’d experienced by an early age, helped me to ‘look beyond’ in later life.

It was in the years after I left school that everything happened. It was a time of study, work and social change along with parties, Rolling Stones, Beatles and Bob Dylan. Apartheid and Moratorium marches, early environmental concerns and equal rights for women were happening along with events like the Aquarius Festival of arts and music, ‘the happening that will make Canberra the most turned on place in Australia’.[1] Kaftans, clogs and hotpants were the go and Germaine Greer was stirring feminist thinking. It was a time of experimentation, fun and long conversations.

Steering carefully through this tumultuous time was not always easy and now, on reflection, it seems the experiences and relationships from my early school years were a real help in making it through. Alongside the friends, key adults and good teachers had left some indelible marks that guided me after leaving school.

Recently Cowandilla Primary School in SA introduced a pilot educational program, Smarter About Drugs, with the help of Australia21 and the Australian Lions Drug Awareness Foundation. As principal Julie Hayes said about the program, “Maths is important and literacy is important but this may well be a life saving skill. We give them the words and the strategy to keep them in a safe place.”

Australia21 provided expertise and guidance for teachers, but we also recognised it was important to involve the students in the process, to integrate the drug education program across all study areas and to ensure access to recent research. Parent support was of utmost importance as well.

After the program, Year 8 student Daniel reflected, “If you have a better understanding of things, the decisions you make will be better and more mindful.” The school plans to continue the program and to share the work with other schools.

I believe we should provide very young people with knowledge about alcohol and other drugs, integrated across the curriculum, and encourage strong friendships that allow them to help one another in later life.

[1] Canberra Times Sat 15 May 1971

Emertius Professor Bob Douglas: Prohibition is disastrous Australia21 Director & founding Chair Founding Director of the Australian National University Public Health Research Centre & former General Practitioner and Specialist Physician

This photo is taken from my 1953 Fort Street High School magazine in my final year as a member of the debating team that was celebrating being runner-up in the Sydney combined high schools debating competition. Jollity was not a feature of school magazines in my day.

The only recreational drugs available when I left school were alcohol and nicotine and I was a determined “wowser”, refusing to play with alcohol because I had been encouraged to “sign the pledge” in my early teens by the WCTU (Womens Christian Temperance Union). I nevertheless enjoyed partying and the levity associated with people getting pissed, until one of my close medical student friends spent a night in jail for driving under the influence. It could have cut short his career but he took the warning and modified his drinking. I was also out to dinner with another of my very bright classmates on the night he had his first taste of the alcohol to which he subsequently became addicted, dying in his 40’s.

In my 50’s, I decided that occasional alcohol could have health benefits and I nowadays greatly enjoy a glass with meals, but I have never been drunk and I struggle to understand  the culture, which seems to imply that unless you get “smashed” occasionally, you are not a real adult.

I learnt of the medical consequences of nicotine use at medical school, which quickly convinced me not to take it up as had my father and two brothers, all of whom died early.

I am absolutely convinced that making the use of most recreational drugs illegal in my lifetime, as a result of the stupidity of Richard Nixon, has been a disaster. Like the prohibition of alcohol in the USA in the 30’s, prohibition of recreational drugs has simply pushed their marketing and distribution underground and promoted their use as a bit of an illegal thrill. The sooner we can restore sanity to this issue the better.

For some great tips on safe partying from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation click here.

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