Our response to the NHS Digital young people report

28 August 2019

These figures produced by NHS Digital on young people’s substance misuse make for mixed reading.

Findings regarding the continued decline in young people smoking cigarettes are welcome; they now represent the lowest prevalence rate on record. However, there are still almost a quarter of 11-15 year olds that have tried drugs (38% of 15 year olds). Although consistent with findings from 2016, these are still among the highest rates of reported drug use over the last decade. Coupled with data which highlights the increasing accessibility of drugs, there needs to be continued and increased focus on how to address substance use amongst young people. Indeed, many of the most vulnerable young people, who use substances more problematically, are not engaged with mainstream education so will be excluded from this data.

51% of young people who had recently drunk alcohol, smoked cigarettes or taken drugs experienced low levels of happiness. 38% of this cohort reported being very anxious. Substance misuse amongst young people is largely symptomatic of other presenting issues in a young person’s life. This is often their emotional wellbeing, mental health as well as poor or coercive relationships (familial, romantic or peers) where substances are used as a coping strategy. Conversely, these findings highlight how they actually have the opposite effect, impacting their wellbeing and increasing their exposure to associated risk. There is a need to improve evidence-based education to young people with a focus on prevention to support them in making more informed decisions. The impending introduction of mandatory relationship and sex education in secondary schools presents a good opportunity to consider how this drug and alcohol education is incorporated meaningfully in the school curriculum.

Of course, drug and alcohol education alone is not the answer. Young people are living in a society where they are increasingly susceptible to substance misuse to cope with the increasing pressures they face in day to day life. We have seen this in how young people use substances as a means to deal with trauma, reduce anxiety, increase performance and alter body appearance. We must, therefore, focus all drug and alcohol education around building positive life skills, with a particular focus on emotional and social resilience. Prevention, as we know, is more effective than treatment for those that may go on to use more problematically.

There is often a call for education providers to focus on their strategies on further addressing substance use amongst their pupils following this bi-annual publication. Whilst this is, of course, necessary, this universal issue requires a ‘whole-system’ approach whereby parents/carers, mainstream providers, support services and local communities identify their role and responsibilities in addressing the risk to our young people. This is our future generation at stake, and, there is an ethical imperative for us all to identify its health as ‘everybody’s business’.

Statement by Raj Ubhi, National Head of Operations (young people’s services)