CEO Blog: NPS prevention requires a holistic approach

My reflections on the Home Affairs Committee report into psychoactive substances (New Psychoactive Substances - NPS) and the bill proceeding through parliament, which was published on Friday 23 October. The report highlights the importance of the voluntary sector in working alongside schools and other agencies in response to NPS.

26 October 2015 | CEO Blog

Encouraging report from the Home Affairs Committee

I was very interested to read the Home Affairs Committee report into psychoactive substances (New Psychoactive Substances – NPS) and the bill currently proceeding through parliament, which was published on Friday 23rd October.

It was good to see this report recognise that the new legislation should not lead to an over emphasis on an enforcement solution and that it is vital to enhance and expand drug prevention and education. The committee also feels that teachers and practioners need more support and resources to enable effective prevention work. The Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service (ADEPIS) is referenced by the committee. ADEPIS provides practical advice and tools, including briefing sheets for teachers. We are currently working with our government partners to strengthen this service but as the report highlights; government spending on targeted campaigns for NPS between 2013 and 2015 was only £180,556.

Government needs to focus on enabling young people to have broader access to evidence-based drug prevention and education which represents the most effective means of ensuring that our children and young people grow up free from the harms of drugs – including NPS.

The report references Mike Penning (Minister of State at the Home Office responsible for drugs policy) as acknowledging that the new legislation was “not going to be perfect” and that a lot of work with the voluntary sector and schools was required to make sure young people were educated about the dangers of NPS. We would strongly agree therefore that greater investment would be well directed at prevention and education programmes if we are to be effective in building young people’s resilience to NPS risks.

I was also really encouraged to see the report highlight the importance of the voluntary sector in working alongside schools and other agencies in response to NPS. Mentor is leading in this role, especially through ADEPIS, and we hope that government will follow through on this recommendation, making the most of the voluntary sector’s expertise.

A narrow approach?

However I would caution the committee’s simple recommendations that “action must be taken now, to educate young people about NPS, through stronger and wider public information campaigns” and that “Government oblige schools, with the assistance of the voluntary sector, to promulgate these existing resources as a matter of urgency.”

These approaches can be part of an effective prevention strategy but are insufficient on their own. Just last week the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction published a new report for the German Federal Centre for Health Education which comprehensively assesses substance use prevention approaches. The report clearly concludes that approaches based solely on information provision are ineffective, in contrast to the more positive evidence for lifeskills and multi-component community programmes. Over the last two decades Mentor has demonstrated the effectiveness of a range of programmes and approaches. We know that if we invest in evidence-based drug prevention, we can empower young people to make the most of opportunities and ensure that fewer young people turn to alcohol and other drugs.

School-based approaches which provide information about drugs in isolation, use fear-based approaches, and stand-alone mass media campaigns have consistently been shown to be ineffective at improving outcomes – some studies even suggest that emphasising the dangers of drug use may enhance the status of drug-taking [1]. With schools representing the most efficient way to deliver universal alcohol and drug education, it is vital that teachers are able to follow best practice. It is in this context that Mentor developed ADEPIS to provide guidance and support to schools, so that teachers are able to follow best practice based on the latest national and international evidence.

What does work

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ (ACMD) briefing paper, Prevention of drug and alcohol dependence recognises that we are only beginning to generate quality evidence on what works in prevention. However ACMD pointed out a number of promising approaches, including multi-sectoral programmes with multiple components and certain skills-development-based school programmes. Further, their report advises that the available evidence supports a more holistic approach that embeds universal drug prevention into wider strategies that support healthy development and wellbeing in general. We should not disproportionately pour resources into info NPS-specific  campaigns, rather we need to empower teachers to provide holistic prevention education that includes NPS.

Here, AMCD’s briefing is reflected in Mentor’s practice: we are currently trialling a range of programmes that seek to strengthen the evidence base of what works in prevention in the UK. The Good Behaviour Game is a social influence approach to classroom management that has demonstrated improved behaviour and attainment and, in the long term, a reduction in smoking and substance misuse. We are also about to introduce a UK pilot of the Unplugged programme in secondary schools and Pupil Referral Units in North West England.

Unplugged is an evidence-based programme designed to equip young people with specific skills and resources that they need to resist social influences and to support knowledge about drugs and their adverse health consequences. It focuses on core ‘life skills’: critical thinking, decision-making, creative thinking, effective communication, relationship skills, self-awareness, empathy, and coping with emotions. In addition, the programme aims to correct mistaken ideas about how prevalent and acceptable drug use is in general among young people.

Whatever the final outcome of the Psychoactive Substances Bill, young people will still choose to use or not to use a variety of ‘legal’ and illegal substances – legal classification has little impact on decision-making. Simply providing information and building awareness is also insufficient.  What we need to do, therefore, is equip young people with the skills and confidence to negotiate a range of difficult situations. By focusing on programmes that utilise a mix of the key factors linked to preventive outcomes – normative education, social resistance skills, broader health-based education, interactive methods – we can strengthen our understanding of what works and build our capacity to deliver effective prevention for young people.

[1] Cragg, A. (1994) ‘The two sides of fear’. Druglink Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence. September-October: 10-12.