Learn about substance use and addictions and how to support children and youth in Ontario.
Understanding substance use and addictions
When people talk about substance use, they are usually referring to the consumption of 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 substances – both legal and illegal – are potentially psychoactive. Legally available drugs include over-the-counter medications like cough and cold remedies, as well as prescribed medications like pain killers (opioids such as codeine or Percocet, for example). Illegal substances, or “street drugs” can include, for example, MDMA (Ecstasy), cocaine or methamphetamine. 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. People use substances for different reasons, and in varying degrees. For some people there may not be any harms related to their substance use, however, for some there may be negative impacts on their lives. For more information, visit our page on substance use and addiction.
Alcohol and cannabis
Alcohol and cannabis are the substances used most frequently by youth in Canada. Alcohol is often the first substance used, and many young people in middle school and high school have tried it at least once. Cannabis use is also common. From grade 7 to grade 12, the use of both alcohol and cannabis becomes more widespread, with alcohol use roughly double that of cannabis.
For more information on the consumption of various substances among youth in Ontario, visit the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, which is the longest-running Canadian survey that shows trends in substance use and mental health.
Substance use and harm reduction
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 substances may have negative impacts on this important process
- accidents, like car collisions, because of increased risk-taking and impaired judgment, attention and reflexes
- alcohol or drug poisoning, particularly since young people don’t yet know their physical limits (binge drinking is common among young teenagers)
- difficulty with schoolwork and attendance
- strain on important relationships with family and friends
- Long-term substance use issues (addiction)
A harm reduction approach aims to minimize the potential harms of substance use and has shown to be an effective strategy with youth. Harm reduction is an evidence-based, client-centred approach that seeks to reduce the health and social harms associated with addiction and substance use, without necessarily requiring people who use substances from abstaining or stopping. Included in the harm reduction approach to substance use is a series of programs, services and practices. Essential to a harm reduction approach is that it provides people who use substances a choice of how they will minimize harms through non-judgemental and non-coercive strategies in order to enhance skills and knowledge to live safer and healthier lives. For more information on harm reduction, visit: https://ontario.cmha.ca/harm-reduction/
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 may 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 cope with their symptoms or challenging feelings. So sometimes, substance use can mask serious mental health issues. 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 problematic substance use
Particular signs depend upon the substance being used, but in general, signs that someone may be using substances problematically include:
- missing school, work, or other important obligations
- 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
- mood changes, irritability, personality change
- taking up with a new group of friends who are less connected to home and school
These may be warning signs of problematic substance 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 problematic substance use, 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. 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 counsellor, or your family doctor.
- If your child is using substances, stay calm instead of showing panic and anger. Offer patience and support.
- Educate yourself on harm reduction and ways to engage your child in a non-judgmental conversation about substance use.
- Keep communications open – talk to your kids and remember to listen! Try to understand your child’s perspective.
- If the situation appears serious, get your child the help he/she needs. Early intervention can help. As a start, contact your family doctor or other trusted health professional.
Find services close to home by contacting Connex Ontario for services in your area: https://www.connexontario.ca/
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, seven 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.
Lower-Risk Cannabis Guidelines for Youth
This youth education resource provides evidence-based information on safer ways to use cannabis, for those who’ve made the choice to use
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:
- Youth Addiction and Concurrent Disorders
- Talking About and Spotting Substance Abuse
- Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean Youth
- Youth and Prescription Pain Killers – What Parents Need to Know
Here to Help
HeretoHelp is a project of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Substance Use Information. It’s a group of seven leading mental health and addictions non-profit agencies that, since 2003, have been working together to help people live well and better prevent and manage mental health and substance use problems. They offer the following resources:
Government of Canada: talking with teenagers about drugs
Between illegal substances and prescription medications it may be hard to know where to start talking about drugs. But drugs can be dangerous and some teenagers are not aware of all the risks.
Start the conversation early and give information before your teen needs to ask.