The majority of high school students believe most of their peers drink, but in reality, according to survey data, the opposite is true.
“Most Alaska teens choose not to drink,” said Hope Finkelstein.
Finkelstein is the coordinator for the Alaska Wellness Coalition, a group of behavioral health organizations that teamed up in 2010 to combat public health issues throughout the state.
“There’s a perception gap there,” Finkelstein said. “What really is valuable is this concept, from a media perspective, communication, is how do people perceive the issue.”
In the years following the coalition’s formation, members decided they wanted to start a statewide campaign that could have a positive effect on public health. From those conversations, stakeholders agreed on at least two things: They wanted to help young people, and they wanted to start from a positive viewpoint.
“Coming at it from a negative perspective hasn’t really worked,” Finkelstein said. “Unanimously, coalition members agreed they wanted to approach the issue from a positive perspective.”
Out of these discussions was born a new campaign — Be [You] Alaska — an awareness campaign that hopes to take its message directly to youth via the stories of their own peers through the media teenagers use.
The basic premise of Be [You] is simple. It hopes to narrow the perception gap mentioned by Finkelstein to show teenagers how normal it is to abstain from alcohol and other unhealthy behaviors.
“If we want health to occur, we don’t start with sickness,” Finkelstein said. “Saying that, this is not a Pollyanna campaign. It’s not about just be(ing) happy … It can be sad. It can be angry … and you don’t have to drink to cope with those feelings. Kids can relate to that. It’s human.”
Be [You] is based on the positive community norms framework, similar to the positive assets model used by the Anchorage School District. The idea is to provide support to teenagers throughout the state while promoting positive community among their peers.
To spread its message, the Alaska Wellness Coalition reached out to teenagers throughout the state who are living their lives without alcohol, asking them to share their stories. It has placed its public service announcements on YouTube and Pandora, as well as on television and radio.
In Nome, the coalition reached out to two cousins, Tehya and Sierra Tucker. The Tuckers grew up surrounded by family problems with alcohol, but at ages 18 and 16 respectively, Tehya and Sierra are breaking out from their family’s troubled past with alcohol.
Speaking not just of the Tuckers,but of all the youth involved in the campaign, Finkelstein said the teenagers have all had hardship introduced in their lives by alcohol in some way. Beyond the dozen or so teens who participated in the campaign’s PSAs, Be [You] has brought in thousands of students around the state, evidenced not only by the 2,000 likes on its Facebook page but also by the student groups that have become involved and coalition member organizations who have teamed up with teens on the local level.
“In this state, we know everyone really is related to issues around alcohol. It’s one degree of separation,” Finkelstein said. “Everyone has it in their community. Everyone has it in their family. Alcohol problems are pervasive.”
At the same time, each of the teenagers in the campaign is actively working to make sure that isn’t the case for the next generation.
“They are choosing healthy behaviors. They recognize the role that alcohol has played in their communities,” Finkelstein said. “And at the same time, they’re just regular teenagers.”
Where to find Be[You]:
Originally published November 1, 2015 by Weston Morrow in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.