Mentor’s core purpose is the protection of young people from drug and alcohol harms. These harms may be to health – the immediate impacts seen in A&E departments on a Saturday night, or the long-term damage that can be caused by alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. But there are also indirect harms. Drinking at a young age is linked, especially for girls, to having sex earlier, with a higher risk of unprotected or regretted sex. There are higher levels of drinking and use of other drugs among young people who drop out of education, and very high levels among young offenders.
So what do we know about cause and effect, and what does this mean for prevention?
We know that for some young people, the roots of their risky behaviour lie in their early childhood experiences and family backgrounds, so prevention starts early, even before birth. Some children are clearly at risk but this doesn’t mean they will necessarily receive the support they need. An example of this is children who are cared for by their extended family, as a result, often of parental drug or alcohol abuse.
We also know that attachment to school is a strong protective factor. In the teenage years and earlier, a spiral of disengagement can set in. For example, problems at school can lead to alcohol or cannabis use, which can in turn contribute to rejection of the school’s values and poorer academic achievement. Young people who skip school are more likely to have poor academic outcomes, become NEET (not in education, employment or training) and be involved in crime and anti-social behaviour.
There is no magic bullet, but interventions can make a difference. This has been dramatically demonstrated by a long-term study of the Good Behaviour Game, an intervention to improve classroom behaviour among 5 and 6 year olds which was shown to have significant impacts on outcomes age 19/20, including drug and alcohol misuse and educational achievement. (Baltimore study).
It might be asked, if we can spot children early on who are at highest risk, whether all prevention should be targeted at these. However, being believed to be ‘at low risk’ is in no way a guaranteed route to health and wellbeing, so universal interventions are also vital.
Mentor has long argued that PSHE education should be a statutory subject in schools. Good PSHE can help shape social norms and develop life skills. Young people themselves believe that life skills education on subjects such as drugs and relationships should be a right for every young person.
Where young people are already be drinking or using other drugs in a way that may put them at risk, they can be helped to make healthier decisions through brief interventions (as in our Street Talk programme).
We can’t afford to wait until adulthood to tackle these problems, so it is vital to understand prevention approaches that can be effective with children and young people. Read more about these issues in our new set of briefing papers, or get a quick overview from the Prezi above.