A European perspective: Traineeship at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

In today’s blog post, Stefanie Helmer, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute for Social Medicine, Epidemiology, and Health Economics at the Charité University Medical Center in Berlin, Germany, shares with us what it’s like to complete a traineeship at the European Union’s central agency on drug-related issues: the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in Lisbon, Portugal.

When you work in an interdisciplinary team and you are the one responsible for drug prevention, this goes along with a lot of comments. You are tired on a Monday morning? You can be sure that everybody will ask you about your “field research” at the weekend. If there is a dinner with colleagues, you are the one that is responsible for selecting the wine because you certainly know all about it. So, I thought: let’s go the whole hog – apply for a traineeship in Lisbon at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), the people working there are never going to ask you that kind of questions1.

Even though this was not the real reason behind my application, I was convinced to apply for a traineeship in November 2015 and luckily got it. And now I would like to convince you to do so, too.

The EMCDDA building in Lisbon (Picture: © Stefanie Helmer)

Being a trainee at the EMCDDA

I applied for a position in the prevention unit. Well, actually it is not really a prevention unit because there is only one person responsible for prevention issues at the EMCDDA. However, as long as I worked there we were two, so I guess one can call it a team. To be honest, my first thought was that working in this really tiny team might be boring and uninspiring but this didn’t come true. The best thing about this was that I got directly involved in all that was happening in the prevention area. We discussed almost everything. So, I got an impression of daily work and got the chance to go really deep into the topics.

In 2016, we were five trainees across the EMCDDA. Most of us had recently finished our Masters or PhD studies in a variety of subjects such as psychology, international relations, public health and forensic science. I stayed for five months but most of the trainees stayed for a period of eight months. We were all sitting together in one office but we were working in different units and areas which made it easy for us to get also an insight into other topics. In June, all trainees had the opportunity to participate in the two-week European Drugs Summer School, where (amongst others) the EMCDDA’s scientific staff presented their work and I got a nice overview of all the work that is done at the agency.

But what did I actually work on?

I personally worked on a variety of projects and collaborated with many colleagues of the EMCDDA’s networks in EU countries. Most of my work was directly linked to prevention issues. As in the recent years there has been increased pressure for greater effectiveness, accountability and transferability of prevention and intervention programmes, this was one of the major areas we were working on. To get an impression I want to introduce a few of the projects I was involved in.

As one example, we worked on the idea to set up a European registry for evidence-based prevention programmes. Across European countries, several national registries already exist that summarise and score developed and implemented prevention programmes but only limited information for prevention implementers was available how to roll out programmes. Hence, a sustainable European database with emphasis on implementability was needed that furthermore serves to foster synergies with existing registries. The EMCDDA therefore organised a meeting to bring together international experts and the representatives of national registries. Hence, I got the opportunity of getting to know all the experts and was involved in the planning of the registry.

In another project, we, the prevention ‘team’, worked on a publication draft about prevention systems in Europe. For this publication we analysed data about the actual implementation of prevention in European member states. Even though I had worked in the substance use prevention field for several years already, I was not aware that so many different prevention systems exist and how the importance of policy and organisation differs between countries. The main concept of the paper was presented and discussed at the EUSPR conference last year under the title: How can prevention systems be defined and compared across European countries?

Another interesting project was the Healthy Nightlife Toolbox that had originally been set up as an EU-funded project to inform local, regional and national policy makers and prevention workers about prevention projects in nightlife settings. The website was adopted by the EMCDDA and was launched recently. It was great to get the news that the website has been active and very well-received.

As I am primarily a quantitative researcher I was also interested in analysing data dealing with drug use and prevention issues. The EMCDDA is involved in the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), and in collaboration with colleagues from the agency I analysed parts of the dataset. We wanted to find out more about contextual, social and parental predictors of adolescent substance use for guiding substance use prevention policies in Europe. We are still on it and it is a challenging but extremely interesting task.

It’s about more than just projects

As you can see, I worked on many projects that have been or will be implemented in the future and that actually found their way into “the real world”. For me, it was inspiring to attend meetings with international experts in prevention. And this was not only restricted to Europe: in a meeting about the Universal Prevention Curriculum that also took place in Lisbon I was also able to meet experts from outside Europe. I am still in contact with many of them; it provided new impulses and opened new perspectives for me that I don’t want to miss. Needless to say that working in an international context is always good for a personal profile and future career. I am grateful for this experience and that I found new inspirations, a supportive mentor and many new friends.

If you want to know more about how it is to be a trainee at the EMCDDA, feel free to contact me or comment on the blog. The annual trainee announcements can be found on the EMCDDA website (usually the deadline is in December). I am also very interested in other experiences at other institutions or agencies in or outside Europe.

About the author:

Dr Stefanie Helmer is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute for Social Medicine, Epidemiology, and Health Economics at the Charité University Medical Center in Berlin, Germany. She graduated from Bielefeld University in Germany where she also wrote her dissertation. At that time, she worked for the Leibniz-Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology in Bremen, Germany in the field of health intervention research, with an emphasis on misperceptions and social norms in regard to substance use behaviour. In 2016, she completed a traineeship at the unit “Consequences, responses and best practices” of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon, working mainly on issues related to evidence-based prevention of substance use. You can contact Stefanie at stefanie.helmer[at]charite.de.

Notes

  1. As most of you may know, the EMCDDA is an agency of the European Commission that was set up to provide information about drug use and the responses to it in the European Union’s member states, Norway and Turkey. If you are interested in their work, you can find more details here: http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/. []

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