The case for prevention

As a prevention charity, our work is all about reducing future needs. We believe prevention services are a crucial investment in the future. If we support more young people today, there will be reduced need for behavioural services, healthcare and substance-related treatment services in the future.


We want to shift resources from approaches which have been shown not to work to ones that do. Mentor advocates for prevention programmes that have been proven by evidence to change young people’s attitudes and behaviour to alcohol and drugs and to (re-)engage them in education, training, volunteering and work.

Why we focus on prevention

The need for prevention

The social and economic consequences of drink and drug misuse are huge. Public Health England estimates that drug and alcohol harm costs the UK £36.4 billion every year – including £4 billion in NHS costs alone – with each individual problematic drug user costing the state an estimated £827,000 over the course of their lifetime.

Yet we barely spend anything trying to prevent this catastrophe. The NHS spends only 4% of its total budget on preventing ill health. NICE estimated in 2009 that a national alcohol prevention programme in schools reducing young people’s alcohol consumption by as little as 1.4% would be a cost-effective public health intervention – but we continue not to invest in effective health education.

This flies in the face of what evidence suggests our priorities should be; for each year during adolescence a young person doesn’t drink alcohol, they are 10% less likely to misuse alcohol as an adult. Delaying the age when teenagers start to drink means their prospects are happier, wealthier and healthier. They are more likely to do well at school and to stay in education, improving their career options.

Deaths from alcohol for 15 – 34 year olds in the UK have doubled in the last 20 years and the UK continues to have one of the most serious drug problems in Western Europe.

Office for National Statistics (ONS)

The long term effects of alcohol and drugs on health and well-being are widely publicised, but there are many more immediate impacts. For example:

  • Alcohol consumption among 13-15-year olds is often indicative of negative attitudes towards school (held by young people or their parents) which have been shown to affect academic achievement, including getting lower GCSE scores
  • Underage drinking is strongly associated with a number of negative educational outcomes, such as the likelihood of being not in employment, education or training (NEET), lower GCSE scores, and not remaining in full-time education beyond the age of 16
  • Smoking before the age of 14 is associated with increased rates of alcohol dependence, substance use disorders and depression in adulthood, even after accounting for family background
  • In neighbourhoods where drugs are readily available, the anti-social consequences for individuals, families and communities are clear: 53% of violent crime is alcohol-related, and drug misuse costs to society are more than £15 billion a year

Who’s responsible?

Children and young people are heavily influenced by their families and schools, which sometimes surprises parents and teachers. Parents and carers have a critical role, and schools should also deliver alcohol and drug education. Local communities and legislators should ensure that young people do not have ready access to illegal substances and that there are far better ways for them to spend their time and money.

Why our work matters

Mentor is working for an effective, comprehensive and national prevention strategy, through families, schools and communities. No magic bullet can prevent a young person experimenting with alcohol or drugs but we want to create a prevention ‘ecosystem’ in the UK which increases protective factors and reduces risks. Mentor argues for programmes that have been proven by hard evidence to change young people’s attitudes and behaviour to alcohol and drugs and to (re)engage them in education, training volunteering and work.

We want to shift resources from approaches which have been shown not to work to ones that do. Attempting to scare young people away from drugs is simply a waste of time and money.

Michael O'Toole, Chief Executive, Mentor

Our approach to prevention

A holistic, life-course approach

We believe the best strategy for supporting the immediate and long-term well-being of children and young people is through a holistic, life-course approach to prevention. This approach considers the many inter-related risks young people face and supports effective, evidence-based prevention in the home, at school and in the community.

Image source: CMO Annual Report 2011

Evidence-based practice

Evidence is important because it helps us assess the impact and effectiveness of our work. Without evidence, there is a risk that we are delivering less effective programmes and services to young people.

Evidence allows us to test, learn and improve. Evidence also helps us to be accountable to the young people we work with, to funders or commissioners, and to ourselves.

Research has identified some of the things that make young people more vulnerable to using drugs and alcohol. These include being in trouble at school, having friends who take drugs and drink, starting to smoke early, and/or staying out late without parents’ knowledge. Conversely, there are also factors that can protect young people, including good family relationships, clear rules and boundaries and positive school environments. Read more about risk and protective factors.

Types of evidence-based prevention:

  • Universal – Aimed at all children and young people, delivered through schools, youth clubs and families. See The Good Behaviour Game.
  • Targeted – For higher risk groups. See Families Together.
  • Indicated – For young people showing early signs of substance abuse and other related problem behaviors associated with substance abuse. See Breaking Out.

International evidence on prevention

The following briefing paper provides a summary of the UNODC prevention standards and gives corresponding examples of relevant UK guidelines, programmes and interventions currently available in England. It aims to help those in the prevention field to translate the standards into the English operating landscape. It also aims to support local authority commissioners to develop their prevention strategies and implement them in line with evidence.

Download ‘The international evidence on the prevention of drug and alcohol use – Summary and examples of implementation in England’

Prevention and youth involvement

Youth involvement is central to Mentor’s philosophy and practice and is embedded in our work because we know that, for prevention to be most effective, we must listen to and learn from young people. Their views inform and extend our practice and ensure that our work has the greatest impact. We involve young people in different ways, including focus groups, policy work and through our pioneering peer education to young offenders.

Early intervention as an investment

We see prevention as an investment in the future. If we support more young people today, there will be reduced need for behavioural services, healthcare and substance-related treatment services.

In 2014, Public Health England published Alcohol and drugs prevention, treatment and recovery: why invest? Click below to read the full document.