Learn about substance abuse and how to find help for children and youth in Ontario.
Understanding substance abuse
We hear a lot about substance abuse these days. It’s a serious problem for people of all ages. But what does it mean? What is the “substance”? And what is “abuse”?
When people talk about substance use and abuse, they usually mean substances like alcohol, drugs or other chemicals that can change the way we think and feel. Because they can alter thoughts and perceptions, these substances are described as “psychoactive.”
A wide array of drugs – both legal and illegal – is potentially psychoactive. Legally available drugs include over-the-counter medications like cough and cold remedies, as well as prescribed medications like pain killers (codeine or OxyContin, for example). Illegal “street drugs” include, for example, marijuana, MDMA (Ecstasy), cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. Other chemical substances never intended for human consumption, like the fumes from glue, solvents, or gasoline, are also used by some to get “high.”
Each substance has its own effects on the body and mind and its own risks for harm. Because of the potential for harm, the use of some legal substances, like alcohol and tobacco products, is restricted to adult use only. Illegal street drugs will always have additional risks because their contents cannot be fully known. But even store-bought or prescribed medications are dangerous when used incorrectly.
Substance use becomes “abuse” when drugs or alcohol start to have negative effects on one’s life and interfere with regular relationships, activities and well-being. Examples of negative effects include losing friends, getting fired or kicked out of school, or having trouble with the law.
Alcohol and marijuana use
Alcohol and marijuana (cannabis) are the substances used most frequently by youth in Canada and are the most likely to be abused. Alcohol is often the first substance used and many young people in middle school and high school have tried it at least once. Marijuana use is also common. From grade 7 to grade 12, the use of both alcohol and marijuana becomes more widespread, with alcohol use roughly double that of marijuana. Very few children and adolescents use illegal drugs other than marijuana on a regular basis.
The truth is many young people will experiment a bit with drugs and alcohol. Some will become occasional users. Some will have problems — if not immediately, then in the long run. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to know in advance who will have the problems and who won’t.
Dangers of drinking and doing drugs
Substance use has risks at all ages, but young people are at particular risk of:
- harm to physical and mental health, in the short and long term
- harm to the brain — the teenage brain is still developing and drugs and alcohol can have negative impacts on this important process
- accidents, like car collisions, because of increased risk-taking and impaired judgment, attention and reflexes
- changes in personality, including increased aggression (physical and sexual) and suicidal behaviour
- alcohol or drug poisoning, and death, particularly since young people don’t yet know their physical limits (binge drinking is common among young teenagers)
- difficulty with schoolwork and attendance
- isolation, due to loss of friends and damage to family relationships
- arrest and imprisonment
- addiction, now or later in life.
If someone you know is having troubles due to substance use, there is help available (see below). Getting help early is always best.
Males are more likely than females to experience problems with substance use. Other factors associated with an increased risk for substance use issues include:
- a family history of problems with substance use
- existing emotional or mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety
- low self-esteem
- feelings of not belonging
- past experience of trauma or abuse.
People who are experiencing mental health problems may use drugs or alcohol to “self-medicate” as a way to cope with their symptoms. So sometimes, substance use can mask serious mental health issues. Other times, substance use itself can prompt mental health problems, such as drug-induced psychosis. When a person has both a mental disorder and a substance use problem, it’s known as having “concurrent disorders.” Concurrent disorders require their own specialized treatment.
Signs of substance use
Particular signs depend upon the substance being used but, in general, warning signs may include:
- missing school or work, or a drop in grades
- caring less about school, work, or friendships and family
- changes to sleeping and eating patterns
- reduced concentration or memory
- increased secrecy about activities or whereabouts
- needing money more than usual – sometimes to the point of stealing cash or valuables
- loss of interest in grooming and appearance
- general loss of motivation
- mood changes, irritability, personality change
- confrontational behaviour or rule-breaking
- taking up with a new group of friends who are less connected to home and school.
These may be warning signs of drug and alcohol use, but they can also signal other problems, like mental health issues. Either way, it’s important to take these sorts of signs seriously. Don’t ignore them.
Treatment and support
Different types of services are available to help young people with issues of substance use, depending upon where they live and what the problems are.
For many, meeting with a counsellor for a number of sessions is sufficient while carrying on with a regular school routine. Others may benefit from a “day program” for a set length of time. A day program includes treatment and schoolwork in a small-group setting at a single location.
If a more intensive approach is needed, there are residential programs where participants stay for the duration of the program – usually from a few weeks to a few months. There are also some “recovery homes” that provide a supportive environment and life skills training during recovery from substance abuse, in preparation for living independently.
Treatment approaches that involve cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) or that focus on motivation are often used with success. Sometimes medications are helpful. Family therapy may also be involved.
For more information about treatment, see the links below.
How you can help
As a parent, or other caring adult, you can:
- Be a healthy role model for your children. If you drink alcohol, follow Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines (available in brochure form at: http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/2012-Canada-Low-Risk-Alcohol-Drinking-Guidelines-Brochure-en.pdf. This brochure also has some tips for young people who choose to try alcohol.
- Encourage your child to confide in a trusted adult – if not you, then perhaps another relative, a school counselor, or your family doctor.
- If your child is using substances, stay calm instead of showing panic and anger. Offer patience and support.
- Keep communications open – talk to your kids and remember to listen! Try to understand your child’s experiences from their perspective.
- If the situation appears serious, get your child the help they need. Early intervention can help. As a start, contact your family doctor or other trusted health professional.
- Visit the Government of Canada’s “Talking about Drugs” website (see below) for more tips for talking with your teen.
Find services close to home by searching the Ontario Health Care Options directory.
Children and youth can contact:
Kids Help Phone
Free, anonymous and confidential professional phone counselling and online counselling, available 24/7 for kids and youth 20 years of age and younger.
Ontario’s Drug and Alcohol Helpline
Call 1-800-565-8603 for free, anonymous and confidential health services information, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can use chat or email (visit the website to connect), or search the Directory of Services online to find youth programs across Ontario.
Good2Talk is a free, confidential and anonymous helpline providing professional counselling and information and referrals for mental health, addictions and well-being to post-secondary students in Ontario.
Parent Action on Drugs (PAD)
Committed to outreach, prevention, education and support, PAD runs Ontario-wide programs on youth substance use. It produces a range of educational resources of interest to both youth and parents.
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)
CAMH is Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital. Services include assessment, brief early intervention, residential programs, day treatment, continuing care and family support. The CAMH website offers a wide range of information on mental health and addictions, including the following resources:
- Substance Abuse Treatment for Young People: What You Need to Know
- Information for Parents
- Information for Children and Youth
- Concurrent Disorders
- A Family Guide to Concurrent Disorders
Kids Help Phone
Youth friendly information, links and tips on what to do to help yourself or a friend.
Government of Canada — Talking about Drugs
A downloadable booklet for parents to help them talk to their teens about drugs and risk, along with other useful links.
Island Health (BC)
Youth and Substance Use
Useful resource links and downloads for parents, including “Recognizing Resilience: A Workbook for Parents and Caregivers of Teens Using Substances.”
Teens Health (Nemours, US)
Information on smoking, drinking and drugs, including ADHD medications, caffeine, steroids.