Teen Substance Use

health education

Evidence from an NHS Digital survey indicates that smoking and drug use among teenagers is declining and that the amount of alcohol use is broadly unchanged since 2018. Vaping, on the other hand, is on the increase. Grabbing the headlines was the statistic that one in five 15-year-old girls say that they vape. Opinions will differ on this particular finding – vaping is not free of risk but it is almost certainly less harmful to health than smoking – but overall most people will presumably find these survey results encouraging. We of course have a moral duty to do all we reasonably can to improve children’s physical and mental health. And we also need to be thinking about how we improve health outcomes over the long term. We can reduce the incidence of health problems that blight later life by working intensively with children and young people now. That is why physical and mental health are such an important focus of Life-Based Learning.

The Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England, 2021 survey was published by NHS Digital in early September. It contains results from the latest survey of secondary school pupils in England (mostly aged 11 to 15), focusing on smoking, drinking and drug use. It covers a range of topics including prevalence, habits, attitudes and wellbeing. The survey is usually run every two year. The latest survey was delayed, however, due to the impact of the Covid pandemic on schools, so this survey compares findings with those from 2018.

The main findings were that:

  • 18% said they had tried drugs, down from 24% in 2018
  • cannabis is the most popular drug among this age group

  • there has been a decrease in the prevalence of smoking cigarettes
  • 12% had ever smoked (16% in 2018), 3% were current smokers (5% in 2018), and 1% were regular smokers (2% in 2018)

  • 9% are vapers (up from 6%)
  • 21% of 15-year-old girls vape, and girls are more likely to vape than boys

  • 40% of pupils said they had ever had an alcoholic drink (with prevalence increasing with age)
  • 6% said they usually drank alcohol at least once per week, the same as in 2018 (including 14% of 15-year-olds)

  • 18% said they had ever taken drugs (24% in 2018)
  • 12% had taken drugs in the last year (17% in 2018), and 6% in the last month (9% in 2018)

Other key findings were that:

  • pupils who frequently met up with people outside their school or home were more likely to have recently smoked, drunk alcohol or taken drugs
  • low wellbeing was more likely among pupils who recently smoked, drank and/or have taken drugs

Life-Based Learning and health

Improving children’s physical and mental health is an end in itself. But helping children lead healthy lives should also be seen as part of an ambitious long-term public health strategy. Research shows the long-lasting links between childhood/adolescence and midlife health. Obesity trends in all age groups, including children, are certainly not encouraging. We need to ensure that children live healthy lives now and that they have the knowledge, knowhow and opportunity to lead healthy lives into and throughout adulthood.

Life-Based Learning is an approach to education in which the life challenges that we all face, now and in the future, become the focus of a fully rounded life-based curriculum.

Image at the head of this article by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

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