risflecting® as an international health promotion approach is based on the insight that there is a natural human need for ecstatic feelings and risk-taking, which leads to dangerous situations and addiction, unless managed responsibly. risflecting teaches (young) people to anticipate and manage risk, as well as to reflect upon their behavior in order to understand how they can become responsible risk-takers. This work focuses both on the individual and on the dynamics of group pressure. In the recent years, Gerald Koller, mentor and focal point of risflecting® an the pool of 120 risk trainers has expanded this program of risk management from drug and alcohol consumption to areas of consumer spending, gambling, driving, and extreme sports. Since the first project „Risk and Fun“ in 2000 it was introduced in local communities, citizen sector organizations, and regional government programs.
The New Idea
Gerald Koller’s idea is based on a core realization he made while working in the field of addiction prevention, as well as throughout his personal life: that young people needed and searched for experiencing risk situations and extraordinary feelings, and trespassing accepted social limits. Hence, he developed a program that leads teenagers and other groups-at-risk to responsible behavior in risky situations such as sports, driving, alcohol and drug consumption. Target groups are not substance abusers or risk addicts, but rather normal young people that are still in the process of developing an understanding of their own identity and limits.
risflecting® believes that people who lack the balance between routine and risk move into a danger zone of addiction and break-down. As an educational program it guides young people to develop the ability to cope with risk and pressure believing that young people need to master the skill of responsible behavior under stress, since they are especially vulnerable to peer pressure. The programs provide practical, empowering opportunities for youth to experience extreme situations in order to observe their own behavior, and eventually to reflect upon their actions. The work reinforces the individual’s understanding of their own behavioral patterns and enable participants to embrace life-changing patterns of responsible behavior. As an unique approach it teaches the ability to pause for a minute before committing to a situation of risk or danger, in order to ensure the inner readiness before a decision to act is taken.
risflecting® has seen support not only by communities, but also by a growing number of citizen-based initiatives and local governments, such as the cities. There is increasing demand for this approach from Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, in all of which Gerald Koller and his partners have introduced the method. The goal is not only to radically change addictive patterns in Europe, but also to establish a functional model for risk-responsible behavior of decision takers and worldwide.
Addictive behaviour and depression are on the rise all over Europe. 20% of children and youth in Europe are diagnosed with psychological illnesses. According to a recent WHO survey, ten percent of the Austrian population suffer from chronic or temporary depression. Austria has one of the top alcoholism rates in Europe with 330.000 addicts, and an estimated 870.000 living with an – at least temporary – problematic alcohol consumption lifestyle. Usually, kids make their first intoxicating experiences with alcohol between the ages of eleven and thirteen years. Among them, ten percent admit having consumed alcohol over fourty times before, and having been intoxicated at least twice. Moreover, over a third of illegal drug consumers, who take advantage of the Austrian drug consultation services, are adolescents. A further significant number of youth is affected debt distress, as every eighth client of Austrian debtor services is younger than 25.
Traditional approaches to deal with addiction and irresponsible behavior in society, especially among youth, have only resulted in stagnation of the problem. Technology has not provided answers to addiction or reduced the desire for risk-taking. Moreover, traditional prevention programs have imposed high social costs, instead of tackling the roots of the problem. Their individual-centered approach labels addiction to be a disease instead of a cultural problem. On the contrary, risflecting® views addiction as the result of a system that mistakes risk for a problem, rather than a natural part of human identity. It overcomes the system of service delivery upon which traditional prevention is based through this strategic community-based interventions.
In recent years risflecting® has launched a series of projects with risk-taking organizations that reach out to young risk-takers. For instance, it has implemented programs with a debt-counseling and consumer spending organization – or as largest project to date with the largest alpine organization in the region, in which workshops that foster risk awareness that have been attended by thousands of risk-loving youth were imüplemented. These adventurous, yet safe activities focus on extreme sports such as free riding and combine them with riskcompetence training in group situations. Each risky situation is evaluated both before and after exposure. Participants are encouraged to apply their learnings to other borderline situations, that the participant may have faced in the past or that she might experience in the future. For instance, risk experience during a climbing exercise has shown to strike the same chords as ad-hoc risk estimation in road traffic, ie. speeding. Peer-education and mentoring are used to strenghten the participants‘ risk competence by reflecting upon their decisions and individual behavior. Participants are made aware of group dynamics and gain an understanding for the effects of peer pressure on their decision making process.
In addition, risflecting® has designed training programs that educate professional youth workers and teachers to become highly qualified risk educators. After completion these trainers implement their own community projects and hence contribute significantly to the spread of the approach. One example is a program that redesigns parties and has become popular among young people. It uses the perceived authority of bartenders to redefine drinking behaviors of their young consumers. Based on the finding that young people nowadays consume alcohol at a much faster pace, they are slowed down through directed interaction with the bartender, who invites them to mix their own drinks and chat about their drinking habits.
This simple intervention has shown to reduce the amount of alcohol intake and influence future drinking behaviour significantly. The program has been taken up by bars, youth centers, and municipalities all over the country and has been independently copied by young changemakers.
To date, Gerald Koller and his partners and collegues have trained experts in Austria, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. So far, about 120 people have graduated from this program as qualified trainers and multipliers of these ideas.
risflecting® has also developed grassroots strategies that reach out to local communities in workshops and interactive presentations working with young people, groups-at-risk and local and encourages parents, citizen sector organizations, teachers governments and public service agencies to cooperate to create a responsible risk taking culture.
In these grassroots sessions risflecting® is, for example, altering the culture of tent-festivals, ie. huge entertainment festivals that usually involve music and alcohol. There are thousands of tent-festivals held all over Europe, most of them similar in their set-ups. In these sessions risflecting® works with local communities that are hosts of tent-festivals, changing the organizational structure of their events towards more ownership of the participants. Other than just paying and consuming, participants are invited to co-create the program and set-up of the festival. The approach has created environments of joy and celebration with less alcohol and violence.
risflecting® is also starting to design tools to make this approach even more accessible as a practical technique for parents enabling them to support the health and mental wellbeing of their children by means of simple and effective practices.
Gerald Koller’s program, driven forward by an expert pool of trainers and project coordinators, has recorded significant successes in shifting both young people’s behavioral awareness related to risk and radically changing communication and learning structures between educators and youth. In order to support this work of social change, Gerald was elected as Ashoka Fellow by Ashoka, the global organization for the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.