Looking Back: A retirement interview with Jeff Lee

ISSUP founder and Senior Consultant Jeff lee speaking at the United Nations in Vienna

Jeff Lee is well known in the field of drug demand reduction and is a founding figure in the creation of ISSUP. For over four decades, Jeff has played a major role in drug prevention and has undertaken and managed projects in more than 80 countries around the world. Jeff finally retired in March from his role as a Senior Consultant for ISSUP.

In a quick chat with Jeff, he offers us a glimpse into his successful career, lessons learned, upcoming adventures and hopes for the future.

A little bit about Jeff…

Jeff began his career as a teacher and progressed into other roles that intersected education and health. This career turn kickstarted Jeff’s interest in drug education and the need to address the factors that result in problematic health behaviours.

Jeff was ISSUP’s first Chief Executive and played a critical role in its establishment. Hitherto, Jeff worked with Mentor International as the Executive Director, served as the Director of the Advisory Council for Alcohol and Drug Education (a UK National NGO based in Manchester) and also worked with the European Drug Prevention Quality Standards (EDPQS) project at Liverpool John Moores University.

Looking back, would you do anything differently?

The present is always a learning ground for the future, so going back would mean doing a lot of things differently. Since that is not possible, I believe that each experience, whether perceived as positive or negative, has contributed to my professional and personal development. One thing is for sure though – I would spend less time away and more time with my kids.

Why did you choose prevention for your career?

Education has always been my passion and the basis of my interest in prevention. As a teacher, I witnessed firsthand the gaps in the education curriculum, particularly in addressing issues like health and behaviour. My secondment with the Health Education Council was the game changer and a step into the world of integrating health, and personal and social education (particularly drug education).

What has changed in prevention over the past decades?

There have been significant advancements in the field of prevention. Currently, there is a broader realisation to focus on the “person” and not the “substance” when addressing substance use behaviours. Equally, there is a greater recognition of ‘prevention’ as a science which illustrates the needs and complex interplay of factors required to develop holistic and effective prevention efforts. There is still a lot more to achieve especially in the context of education.Sadly, in our schools we have a curriculum and vision for the 1950s and not the 2020s. What young people need to know and learn is rarely addressed.”

What are your hopes for the field of substance use prevention?

I have always asserted the critical role of education and the need to promote skills and competencies within a health behaviour context as a key element for tackling substance use prevention. We need a further integration of prevention efforts with education and healthcare systems, increased focus on evidence-based practices tailored to diverse cultural contexts, and enhanced collaboration among stakeholders to maximize impact.

“No presumption that what works in USA or Europe will work elsewhere!”

What would you describe as your biggest accomplishment or favourite project?

Mentor International and ISSUP are my major accomplishments alongside helping to keep prevention on the international agenda. My favourite project has to be my work in Uganda where we implemented a programme that provided an alternative to substance use through sport. This allowed me to work with my son and offer practical insights into my scope of work.

Glad you mentioned ISSUP, how did it all start?

My work experience at that time exposed me to various national and international initiatives promoting evidence-based drug demand reduction practices. I was asked to join a group to discuss ‘coherence and collaboration’ with a view to addressing how we could communicate the initiatives to practitioners in terms of availability and accessibility. The outcome was a meeting initiated by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) at the U.S. State Department. This culminated, after further meetings and discussions, in the establishment of ISSUP. I was then asked to take a lead role in its work and development.

What’s your vision for ISSUP?

ISSUP as the international focal point for information, help, support, and advice in the field of substance use, health, and well-being. Similarly, the National Chapters serving as the National focal point.

To put it figuratively, “I need help in DDR” – “go to ISSUP” – “they will tell you where to go or provide the help you need”.

What would you miss most about your career?

People! I could never achieve this much without the people around me in ISSUP and within the wider international field. The camaraderie and shared sense of mission were truly special.

Any advice to young professionals?

I would advise prioritising the needs of the people and the underlying factors driving health behaviours; not just drug related issues. Never lose sight of the practice and the real-world implications of your work. “Expertise is not just having a PhD but working and learning with those who address these issues in reality and not in the university.”

Who is Jeff outside prevention, and do you have a personal mantra or philosophy?

I see myself basically as a liberal. Outside work, I am a parent with a life mission to bring up my children to make their own independent choices. However, when it comes to football teams there had to be some indoctrination to ensure that my 3 sons continue to move forward in support of Nottingham Forest! - joking!

Regarding a mantra or philosophy, I have always tried to ask myself and others to “Walk a mile in my shoes” (Elvis or Roxy Music!) and to see things from the other person’s perspective before judging or commenting on what a person does.

Finally, any retirement plans?

Making the most of the present for as long as I can; play golf as much as possible and see Nottingham Forest retain their Premiership status. I also look forward to spending quality time with my family – my wonderful wife, our sons, and our little granddaughter.

“Amidst all this, staying positive and hoping to remain in good health!”

Jeff, any shout-outs?

Of course! My accomplishments would have been impossible without other important people - my wife Tracey who spent her time bringing up 3 children whilst I was working around the world. Joanna, Jack, Livia, and many others – too many to mention but they know themselves.

“Thank you to all who have shown me kindness and supported me in my efforts to make a difference in helping people find health, purpose, meaning, value, and dignity in their lives.”

Thank you, Jeff and Congratulations! You have indeed set a legacy for generations to come.

We are signing off this interview with your customary email signature – “Take Care & Keep Smiling”!

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