Childhood adversity, substance misuse and young people's mental health

Photograph of the head and shoulders of a young person. They have a backpack on and are wearing a denim jacket over a hooded sweatshirt, with the hood pulled up

Charities, YoungMinds and Addaction say young people who misuse substances may have underlying trauma which is not being addressed, and are calling on local commissioners to take action. The two charities have published a new briefing paper – Childhood adversity, substance misuse and young people’s mental health – which finds that young people who have been exposed to difficult experiences in their childhood are at higher risk of misusing substances.

The briefing, which is being sent to all Clinical Commissioning Groups across the country, is calling on commissioners and providers to be aware that young people may misuse substances as the result of trauma. In this way, they want trauma to be identified and addressed by support services, rather than young people becoming re-traumatised or incorrectly labelled. 

Read the briefing (PDF)

The briefing finds that:

  • While substance misuse among young people has been broadly in decline since 2001, it can be a sign that young people are ‘self-medicating’ as a way of coping with trauma, or are experimenting with their identities.

  • Children who have experienced four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences – like abuse, neglect or domestic violence – are twice as likely to binge drink and 11 times more likely to use crack cocaine or heroin. Professionals working with children who are misusing substances should routinely explore possible connections with childhood adversity and poor mental health.

  • Today, over 200,000 children in England live with at least one parent, carer or adult who is alcohol dependent. These families need targeted support to promote recovery, and to reduce the likelihood of those children being exposed to trauma.

Dr Marc Bush, Chief Policy Adviser and YoungMinds, said:

“We know that children who have had a difficult start in life are far more likely to develop long-term mental health problems, and drugs and alcohol misuse may often play a role in this. That’s why it’s crucial that commissioners invest in early intervention to ensure that the children most at risk get the right support quickly. It’s also vital that professionals working in A&E departments or in specialist drug and alcohol services have the skills they need to explore whether young people are self-medicating as a way of managing painful feelings and memories. We need to dig beneath the surface and make sure we address the cause of dangerous behaviour in young people, and not just the symptoms.”

Rick Bradley, Operations Manager of Addaction’s Mind and Body programme, said:

“We must ensure young people can talk openly about mental health and substance use without fear of being judged and stigmatised. Talking to peers has helped the young people on the Mind and Body programme realise that it is okay not to be okay all of the time, with 3 in 4 reporting an improvement in wellbeing. We hope we can inspire and empower other young people to follow their lead.”

YoungMinds and Addaction are calling for local commissioners to do more to ensure that local services provide support for children and families by:

  • Embedding psycho-education in the universal education offer
  • Introducing routine enquiry within urgent and emergency care, and specialist drug and alcohol services
  • Investing in early intervention models
  • Building targeted parental and whole family support models
  • Establishing inter-agency collaboration

Read the briefing (PDF)

This is the first in a series of briefings that YoungMinds is producing about the links between Adversity and mental health. For more information, see the Young Minds website, and for more reports and briefings on Addaction's work see our research section.