Substance use and addiction
Substances can change how we think, feel, act, and perceive the world around us. Many young people experiment with substance use at some point during their development. Alcohol and cannabis are the substances most frequently tried by adolescents. For some students, this experimentation is low risk and for a relatively short period of time. For others, it may develop into a significant problem.
Continuum of substance use
Substance use occurs along a spectrum (commonly called a continuum of use) ranging from no use at all to experiencing a substance use disorder. A comprehensive approach requires evidence-based strategies that address the needs of all students, regardless of where they fall on the continuum of use. Note that problematic substance use and mental health problems often co-occur, regardless of which one comes first.
As an educator, you have a role to play in promoting resilience, noticing when a student may be struggling with a mental health problem, and providing ongoing caring support in the classroom.
Resources for educators
How to help students
Activities that promote student well-being and connectedness at school can help to prevent problematic substance use. The work you do to create and sustain a mentally healthy classroom is a key part of this.
You can also:
- Help students explore healthy ways to manage stress and feelings without the use of substances.
- Help students explore substance-free activities, especially activities that facilitate relationships and a sense of belonging.
- Provide students with opportunities to learn about substances through assignments, classroom debates or discussion of current events.
- Remind students they have a choice if they’re feeling pressured to try something.
- Suggest students talk to a trusted adult to understand more about a substance, how to reduce harm, and how to respond to peer pressure.
- Encourage students to avoid or delay trying substances.
- Remind students to never ride with a driver who is under the influence of alcohol, cannabis or another substance.
- Have evidence-informed lower risk use guidelines for common substances available for students to take or for you to review together. CAMH has guidelines for alcohol (for adults) and cannabis (for youth).
Learn more about effectively increasing well-being to reduce prevent problematic substance through the Preventing Problematic Substance Use through Positive Youth Development resources.
It’s sometimes hard to detect problematic substance use. Some signs can look like typical youth behaviour. For example
- ignoring responsibilities at work, school, or home
- giving up activities that they used to find meaningful or enjoyable
- changes in mood (e.g., feeling irritable and paranoid)
- changing friends
- having difficulties with family members, friends, and peers
- being secretive or dishonest
- changing sleep habits, appetite, or other behaviours
- borrowing money or having more money than usual
Students showing problematic substance use require additional opportunities to build resilience and coping skills. They may benefit from small group interventions delivered by school mental health professionals designed to promote protective factors and wellbeing. In addition, there are things you can do in the classroom to provide caring support. For example
- Provide a welcoming response to students when they arrive in class and promote a sense of belonging for all students.
- Provide students with accurate, factual information about substances within the context of curriculum content.
- Be aware of the potential harm of “scare” tactics.
- Be a positive role model for students by modelling appropriate, respectful behaviour, providing guidance and support, and helping students to make good decisions.
- Let students know that you will help them get the support they need if you are concerned.
What to do if you’re concerned
Remember, it’s not your role to diagnose a mental health or substance use problem. When you notice and document your observations, and connect in a caring and non-judgmental way, you can help the student get the support they need.
When to take action
- You’ve noticed changes in day-to-day functioning.
- The signs of difficulty seem severe or prolonged.
- The student or their family has expressed concern.
What to do
- Follow your school board’s protocol for accessing mental health support. This may include
- consulting with your principal, vice-principal or member of your school’s mental health leadership team
- discussing your observations with the student and/or their parent/guardian
- a referral for professional mental health support from school board personnel (e.g., school social worker or school psychologist)
- a referral for professional mental health support within the community
You are a critical part of the support process because you help with early identification. You will remain part of the student’s circle of support as they move to, through, and from professional mental health services.
Depending on the student’s needs, some or all of the practices listed above may be helpful. Working closely with the student, their family, and mental health professionals within the circle of support is the best way to ensure that classroom support meets the student’s mental health needs.
To summarize, if you are concerned about a student in your class, follow your school/board service pathways process. Not sure about the process? Ask your principal or contact your board mental health leader for more information.
From Drug Free Kids Canada, a Cannabis Talk Kit provides information for parents about how to talk with teens about cannabis
The Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction provides a guide for youth allies about engaging in conversations around cannabis called Talking pot with youth
Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy created a resource which makes recommendations about cannabis called Sensible Cannabis Education: A Toolkit for Educating Youth