Get with the programme

Evidence-based prevention and education initiatives are vital to the future of our young people, says Yasmin Batliwala

The NTA’s latest statistics on young people show a steady decrease in the number of under-18s accessing treatment for drug and alcohol problems. Substance misuse among young people: 2011-12 reveals that fewer young people are being treated for class A drugs and that the vast majority (92 per cent) receive support for problems with cannabis and alcohol. The figures also show that most young people accessing drug and alcohol specialist support services present a range of other problems, which demonstrates that ‘substance misuse is seldom an isolated issue’.

While we welcome the news that the number of young people entering treatment has decreased over the years – reflecting a decrease in the number of under-18s using drugs – underage alcohol consumption is still higher in the UK than in most other EU countries. With a third of alcohol related A&E admissions for under-18s, we call on the government and local commissioning bodies to ensure a continued commitment to treatment services for young people, as well as further investment in prevention programmes and early interventions.
WDP believes that there is a clear and defined role for structured drug and alcohol support for young people, and that investing in drug and alcohol treatment for this group has clear cost benefits to society. According to a Department for Education study published in February 2011, for every £1 spent on young person’s treatment, between £5 and £8 is saved by the NHS and other agencies.

It’s also clear that there are opportunities to build on the provision of specific family-focused services within substance misuse specialist agencies. This provides a unique opportunity to tackle the issues of drug or alcohol use within a family unit – a ‘whole family’ approach to substance misuse treatment is an effective way of dealing with drug and alcohol issues early on and breaking the cycle of intergenerational problems.  

In line with the government’s drug strategy, which states that ‘the focus for all activity with young drug or alcohol misusers should be preventing the escalation of use and harm, including stopping young people from becoming drug or alcohol dependent adults’, WDP believes that help needs to be available to young people and their families before the problems become too serious.

If society wants to prevent more young people from becoming dependent on drugs and alcohol then it’s essential that we to take steps to reduce the stigma and taboo around drugs. Stigma can make it more difficult for parents to talk to their children about drugs. It also makes it harder for children to learn about the risks of substance misuse and harder for people experiencing problems to seek and receive help. It is absolutely crucial to provide understandable information and meaningful drug and alcohol education for everyone, including children, parents and teachers.

We believe that prevention programmes should focus on all drugs, including alcohol, as all drugs can have a negative impact on people’s lives. There is also a clear need to increase awareness campaigns on the harms that alcohol can cause, aimed at both adults and young people. A recent report by 4Children shows that too many parents are unaware of the negative effects their drinking can have on their parenting. Honesty about drugs and alcohol, their different properties and the circumstances in which they can be harmful, increases knowledge and increases confidence in the truth of the information. It encourages people to take responsibility for their actions.

The NTA reports that 76 per cent of young people who access drug treatment present a range of vulnerabilities, so it’s clear that young people accessing drug and alcohol treatment will need a range of support and that the substance use should not be looked at in isolation. Similarly, prevention work should look at the issues that cause substance use, and not just focus on the drugs. Any prevention programmes should also be tailored according to age group, and the range of difficulties that age group faces.

The most powerful way to prevent young people from misusing drugs or alcohol is for society as a whole to create ambition for all our young people to learn, participate, achieve and enjoy life, enabling them create a positive environment for themselves away from drugs and alcohol.

We are asking the government and the recently established health and wellbeing boards to not lose sight of the clear benefits of investing in evidence-based drug and alcohol prevention and education programmes for all. We are also calling on local decision makers to focus on investment in young people’s treatment services, as well as to commit to providing early intervention programmes and adopting a ‘whole family’ approach to all those entering treatment for substance misuse.

Substance misuse among young people: 2011-12 available at

Yasmin Batliwala is chair of Westminster Drug Project (WDP).