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Risk and Protective Factors

Research over the last two decades means there is a very strong idea of the risk and preventative factors that affect behaviour by young people; including drug misuse. The risk factors described here indicate possible pathways to early and more problematic patterns of drug use.*

This isn’t to say that all young people facing these risks will become drug takers, or that any use will necessarily be at a problematic level. Nor can the existence of one or more strong protective factors guarantee to guard against, or reduce, drug misuse.

However, if risk factors are lowered and protective factors heightened the evidence suggests fewer young people will have drug problems. It is where these factors are severely out of balance that a young person’s ongoing well-being may be at great risk.

It is worth noting that:

  • risk factors work more powerfully in combination
  • risks factors cannot by themselves accurately predict which young people will, or might, take drugs; rather, they may indicate the possibility of an early start to any drug use, may herald a worrying pattern of use, and may accompany motives for use that are more related to seeking comfort from distress, than looking for the fun, enjoyment and kicks often sought by a recreational user.

Identified risk factors

Home Office commissioned research identified the following as key factors associated with increased risk of taking any drug for 10 to 16 year olds:

  • serious anti-social behaviour;
  • being in trouble at school (including truanting and exclusion);
  • friends in trouble;
  • being unhelpful;
  • early smoking;
  • not getting free school meals; and
  • minor anti-social behaviour.

And for 17 – to 24-year-olds:

  • anti-social behaviour;
  • early smoking;
  • being in trouble at school (including truanting and exclusion);
  • being impulsive;
  • being un-sensitive; and
  • belonging to few or no groups.

Protective factors

The following are identified as protective factors for young people:

  • Strong family bonds
  • Experiences of strong parental monitoring with clear family rules
  • Family involvement in the lives of the children
  • Successful school experiences
  • Strong bonds with local community activities
  • A caring relationship with at least one adult

DrugScope in their publication The Right Responses1 point out:

Risk and protective factors do not all carry equal weight, and because drug use and misuse are often determined by many inter-related factors, it is apparent that no single organisation or institution can tackle drug misuse by itself.  Whereas the risk factors present may, by themselves, be poor at accurately predicting future drug use, reducing those that are present may also reduce the level of risk.

The Role for Schools:

The same document points out schools can help young people develop specific protective factors by:

  • helping them develop supportive and safe relationships
  • insisting on regular school attendance
  • providing pupils with strategies to cope well with academic and social demands at school
  • allowing strong and supportive social networks
  • encouraging good social skills
  • developing self-knowledge and esteem
  • building good knowledge of legal and illegal drugs, their effects and their risks
  • building good knowledge of general health and how to ensure their good mental health

More recent research has added to our understanding of how schools protect children from the harms caused by drugs.

Drug and Alcohol Findings has two useful articles on the wider prevention roles of schools:

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