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5 things to know about young people in drug and alcohol treatment

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PHE has published the 2016-17 statistics report for young people (under 18) in specialist drug and alcohol services. This is based on data from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS), which collects data from alcohol and drug services across England.

Below is a summary of the main points from this year’s numbers:

  1. The number of young people in treatment is falling

For the seventh year running we’ve seen a fall in the number of under-18s getting help for drug and alcohol problems. Specialist substance misuse services saw 16,436 young people in 2016-17, a 4% decrease from the previous year.

Generally, surveys of young people in recent years suggest a long term trend of decreasing drug and alcohol use. Although this is promising, a survey of schoolchildren in 2016 indicated a possible increase in drug use among 11-15 year olds, which had not been seen elsewhere, so this needs to be monitored.

  1. More young people are completing treatment successfully

The number of young people completing treatment has more than doubled in the past 10 years. In general, effective interventions are widely available, waiting times are low, and young people are continuing to successfully complete their programmes.

Out of nearly 11,000 young people leaving services in 2016-17, 82% did so in a planned way, no longer requiring specialist interventions. This is a 2% higher treatment completion rate than the previous year, which suggests that specialist substance misuse services in England are responding well to the needs of young people who have alcohol and drug problems, helping them to overcome these problems.

  1. Young people in treatment tend to have other problems

However, completing specialist interventions for their drug and alcohol use is often not the end of young people’s journeys. Most under-18s accessing treatment services have other problems or vulnerabilities related to their substance use. In fact four-fifths reported having two or more vulnerabilities, which include things like mental health problems, being ‘looked after’ or not being in education, employment or training.

Many vulnerable young people will need ongoing support such as targeted youth provision, education, employment and housing support, and they might be referred back to, or stay in touch with, other agencies that are providing these services to help them maintain their achievements in substance misuse services.

  1. There has been an increase in younger age groups getting treatment for substance misuse

This year we saw a 10% increase in the number of under-14s seeking help for alcohol and drugs compared to 2014-15. However, it’s too early to draw any conclusions about whether this rise in treatment numbers reflects the possible increase in drug use seen in this year’s schools survey.  The two sets of data aren’t comparable because the data sources use different methodologies, time periods and age ranges. But we are looking into the rise in treatment numbers to understand it better.

For this younger age group, any alcohol or drug misuse is concerning, because they are likely to be at real risk of harm. For these young people, safeguarding needs to be a priority, and they will need help with the other problems and vulnerabilities in their lives, not just their substance misuse.

  1. Alcohol and cannabis are still the most common problem drugs

Lastly, as expected, cannabis was still the most common drug that young people came to treatment services for help with. Nearly nine out of ten (88%) young people in specialist services in 2016-17 said they have a problem with this drug compared to 87% the year before.

Alcohol is the next most common problematic substance; just under half of the young people in treatment (49%) were looking for help with their drinking. However, numbers in treatment for alcohol problems have been declining steadily in recent years.

PHE will continue to work with local authorities, helping them in their important work of commissioning and providing good services for young people who have alcohol and drug problems, based on local need.

We’re also supporting young people by developing our Talk to FRANK drug information service and the Rise Above digital hub, which helps young people to make positive life choices and build resilience. We’re also commissioning Mentor UK’s Alcohol Drugs and Education and Prevention Information Service (ADEPIS) for schools.



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