Substance Abuse

Substance abuse of various kinds is widespread across the UK, and this trend can be seen in young people, including underage school children and university students. The abuse tends to begin with alcohol since it is the most easily accessible.

This is further promoted by the heavy binge-drinking culture present in the UK. In 2017-2018 there were 15,583 young people in specialist substance misuse services, showing it to be a serious public health concern.

For young people (16-24-year-olds) in England and Wales, 21% of deaths in males and 9% of deaths in females have been linked to alcohol consumption. In Scotland, it was found to be 32% in males and 6% in females.

Young people are susceptible to heavy binge-drinking, with 4% of males drinking more than 50 units a week, and 3% of females drinking more than 25 units a week. This places them at a higher risk of addiction, dependency, and mental health and behavioural problems.

The number of underage drinkers who are hospitalised due to alcohol misuse is staggering, with 11,233 admissions of people under 18 in a 3-year period between 2016 and 2019. Research has shown the average age a person tries alcohol is now 13.3 years old, indicating that experimentation begins early.

Various forms of substance abuse can begin at school age, with 18% of pupils in 2016 saying they had taken drugs in the last year according to the NHS Digital survey. This included smoking, drinking and drug use. Common early use drugs can include:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Inhalants
  • Marijuana
  • Prescription drugs (e.g. painkillers)

The worrying fact of this experimentation is it can breed long-term use and addiction later in life. It can also pose immediate risks at the time of consumption. For this reason, it is important that young people are properly educated on the risks of substance abuse.

Why are teens prone to experimenting with drugs and alcohol?

When we are young we enjoy trying new things and having fun experiences. We are also more susceptible to peer-pressure and anxiety, which can lead to substance abuse in social situations. Teens are going through intense developmental, lifestyle, and emotional changes which make them vulnerable to things.

It is a unique time in life, where they are still learning about the world, but old enough to do things independently. This child-like curiosity can lead to experimentation, so it is important that they stay safe.

Environmental and biological factors influence substance abuse in teens. For instance, a family history of drug or alcohol abuse falls into both categories where it could be genetic or encouraged in the home.

Environmental factors tend to include their peers, such as the teenager being friends with other drug or alcohol-abusing teens. Gender, race, and geographic location can also contribute to this, as we can see in the difference between the genders and England, Wales and Scotland in the above statistics.

There are differences between the adult brain and the developing teenage brain. For instance, teens under 17 are less sensitive to the negative effects of alcohol, such as lack of coordination, drowsiness, and hangovers.

Being extra tolerant of these negative side effects might make them more willing to heavily abuse alcohol since they don’t relate to it as something physically or mentally harmful.

Approaches to Prevention

With substance abuse being a complicated issue caused by many factors, such as environmental, biological and other socio-cultural influences, prevention is not an easy task. There are also multiple ways to approach it, with some being more effective than others.

  1. Just say “No” – this is a simplistic approach, as a kind of mantra one can say to themselves. Just say “no” and they remember to say no. However, in practice, this campaign was shown to be fairly ineffective. This is because the circumstantial factors are too complex for the one-word answer “no” to be the end of the conversation. Still, it is an important starting point for the discussion
  2. Openness and honesty with parents or trusted adults – if a teenager has an older person they can confide in without the fear of getting into trouble they can be safer. They will feel able to seek help if their friends start abusing substances and not worry about repercussions or losing their friends over it. Also, if they find themselves in an unsafe situation they will feel less afraid to call for help
  3. Fostering good friendships – it is hard when you are younger to know what a true friend looks like. If a friend begins to experiment, it doesn’t mean that you have to follow in their footsteps. If you feel you are being peer-pressured then call them out for it, because everyone knows it’s wrong. A good friend won’t push you into anything you are uncomfortable with. Nonetheless, if you still experiment, it is important to be with people you trust enough to look after you. If you get ill or need medical attention you need people around who are willing to and know when to call for it
  4. Put your energy into trying new hobbies – instead of looking for a thrill from abusing substances out of boredom or curiosity, you can spend your youth trying out all sorts of hobbies. You never know what you may discover and what you might click with. This will prove much more fulfilling long-term than a short-term high which comes with lasting impacts on physical and mental health
  5. Be informed – knowing about the effects of drugs and alcohol can assist in your decision-making. It is important that you know the short and long-term consequences are of substance abuse since there are many risks involved. Be sure to research thoroughly, and if you do experiment do so responsibly. There are even campaigns for adults to ‘drink responsibly’ due to the dangers associated with consuming too much
  6. Consider the impacts – it may be all fun and games now, but any addictive tendencies can stay with you for life. It may become difficult to distinguish binge-drinking at the weekends from an alcohol-dependency problem. This is because they are often the same thing, but the social side of substance abuse disguises the personal dependency you have developed
  7. Make a plan – have an action plan of how you will say “no” which goes beyond just saying “no”. There are many reasons you can use to justify your choices that will silence people when they are trying to push you. You can cite health reasons, mental health reasons, liking to be in control, that you don’t need it to have fun or simply not being interested in it
  8. Seek out help – if you are concerned about yourself or others, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. It could be a parent, trusted adult, or one of the many services available to young people

Some useful resources to get more informed on the issue or seek help include:

Rehab 4 Addiction Rehab for Teens – One of the largest specialist drug and alcohol helplines in the UK, providing services specifically tailored to the needs of young people.

24 Hour Helpline: 0800 140 4690 (lines are open 24 hours a day)

Samaritans – a confidential helpline for anyone concerned about their own or someone else’s wellbeing.

Tel: 0800 917 8282 (lines are open 24 hours a day)

FRANK – a national drug awareness campaign aiming to raise awareness to the risks of illegal drugs. It also offers support to parents/carers on how to approach their children about drugs.

24 Hour Helpline: 0800 776600

There is a prevalent issue in the UK where binge-drinking and drug abuse are normalised and even a common part of the culture. This is dangerous to adults, but to vulnerable young people even more so. The dependency developed at a young age will be even harder to combat as a teen grows up. Substance abuse can also have long-term effects on a brain that is still developing.

To make big cultural and environmental changes, communities must approach this issue at a number of levels:

  • Policy advocacy – policies should be constantly adapted in ways that keep young people safest when it comes to substance abuse
  • Community events – events should spread awareness and offer young people mentors that they feel they can reach out to for guidance
  • Using data – we are in an age of data and we can use this to our advantage to research the most effective strategies to target this issue.
  • Social media – this is a very effective way to reach young people, and it can be used for campaigns or to foster public support for policy changes


Whether you are a teen who has begun experimenting or a parent who is concerned about their child, help is always available. Contact one of the organisations listed above to find out more about the services on offer.