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Fewer young people in drug & alcohol treatment
Latest Public Health England figures give a profile of young people in drug and alcohol treatment and show a further drop in overall numbers.

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Figures for 2015/16

Last week (12 January 2017) Public Health England published information from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System on the number of young problem drug and alcohol users in contact with specialist treatment agencies and general practitioners between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2016.

The headline finding was that specialist substance misuse services saw fewer young people in 2015-16 than in the previous year (17,077, a drop of 1,272 or 7% compared to 2014-15). This continues a downward trend, year-on-year, since a peak of 24,053 in 2008-09.


The main findings of the annual report were:

  • Just under two-thirds of the young people accessing specialist substance misuse services were male (65%), and just over half (52%) of all persons were aged 16 or over.
  • Females in treatment had a lower median age (15) than males (16), with 26% of females under the age of 15 compared to 20% of males.
  • The most common drug that young people presented to treatment with continued to be cannabis. More than four-fifths (87%) of young people in specialist services said they have a problem with this drug compared to 86% in 2014-15. The numbers in treatment for cannabis as a primary substance have been on an upward trend since 2005-06, although numbers have dipped slightly in the last two years.
  • Alcohol is the next most commonly cited problematic substance with just under half the young people in treatment (48%) seeking help for its misuse during 2015-16. However, numbers in treatment for alcohol problems have been declining steadily in recent years and this figure is much lower than the two-thirds (67%) reported in 2009-10.

  • Alongside cannabis and alcohol, young people in specialist substance misuse services used a range of substances. Of those who were in contact with services, 1,605 cited problematic ecstasy use (9%), 1,477 cocaine use (9%), 1,152 amphetamine use (7%), and 1,056 (6%) with concerns around the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS).
  • Although the proportion of young people reported by specialist services as having problems with NPS rose for the second year (from 5% in 2014-15 to 6% in 2015-16), it is still relatively small. Specialist services will want to remain alert to the possibility that young people may develop problematic use of NPS in the future and ensure that services continue to be accessible and relevant to their needs.
  • The most common routes into specialist substance misuse services were from education provision (28%), youth justice services (26%), and children’s social care (14%). The proportion of referrals from the youth justice system has declined in recent years while the proportion of referrals from education has increased. This is the first year of reporting that referrals from education services have exceeded referrals from youth/criminal justice sources.
  • The majority of young people presenting to specialist substance misuse services have other problems or vulnerabilities related to their substance use (such as having mental health problems, being ‘looked after’ or not being in education, employment or training) or wider factors that can impact on their substance use (such as offending, self-harming, experiencing sexual exploitation or domestic abuse). Of the 17 vulnerability items collected via the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS), 83% of young people who have entered treatment in 2015-16 disclosed two or more vulnerabilities.
  • Following on from last year, data on sexual exploitation are included in this report. Six per cent (6%) of young people presenting to treatment services in 2015-16 reported experience of sexual exploitation compared to 5% in 2014-15. This proportion was higher among females (14%) than males (just over 1%).
  • Waiting times to gain access to specialist substance misuse services were short. The average (mean) wait for young people to start their first specialist intervention was two days. Almost all (98%) of the 17,763 first interventions starting in 2015-16 had waiting times of three weeks or under, with 79% of first interventions waiting for zero days.
  • Of the 11,224 young people leaving services in 2015-16, 80% (8,929) did so in a planned way, no longer requiring specialist interventions.


It’s always hard to draw firm conclusions from these annual reports since very many young people use high levels of drugs and alcohol without perceiving their use as problematic or approaching services. Many of these young people moderate their use as they get older while a proportion of them will continue to use and may develop dependencies.

We could conclude, quite reasonably, that the continued fall in the numbers of young people using specialist substance misuse services is a good thing and reflects lower levels of use of drugs and alcohol (which large public surveys such as the Crime Survey for England and Wales corroborate).

It certainly seems that the continued reduction of young people in the youth justice system has naturally led to a fall in referrals from this sector and is at least one of the reasons for the overall drop in the numbers of young people in treatment.

If you work with young people, please use the comments section below to share your views and experiences on drug and alcohol use and access to specialist treatment.

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