Many young people experiment with substance use at some
point during their development. 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.
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.
The role of the SMH professional
As a SMH professional, you have a role to play in supporting educators with mental health promotion efforts, and in providing prevention and early intervention services in this area.
Any adult in a caring relationship with students can play a role in early intervention by noticing that substance use may be impacting students’ lives. You may wish to share the educator version of this info-sheet with school staff to help them notice signs of problematic substance use. They are the eyes, ears and hearts who may notice first. As a SMH professional, it could be you that notices signs that may point to the presence of a substance use problem. Common signs you might notice when working with a student include
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)
having difficulties with family members, friends, and peers
being secretive or dishonest
changing sleep habits, appetite, or other behaviours
Trained SMH professionals may undertake intervention using Motivational Enhancement Therapy (including Motivational Interviewing) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches for students with identified problematic substance use concerns. Some students with more significant needs in this area will require referral to more specialized substance use services.
Contact us. We can review relevant research to help to answer your question. In cases where several requests focus on the same theme, we can arrange for a more comprehensive review which will be shared on the School Mental Health Ontario site.
Brief summary of evidence-informed strategies by tier
All members of the school community have a role to play in promoting wellbeing and preventing and intervening with problematic substance use. At each tier of a comprehensive model, different professionals have different roles. Click on the options below for Tier 1, 2 and 3 to review evidence-informed strategies for school mental health professionals and other members of the school community at each tier.
Offer evidence-based intervention for students with mild-to-moderate mental health problems through structured psychotherapy approaches (e.g. CBT and variants like BRISC, STRONG).
Offer group-based mental health promotion such as the Healthy Relationships Plus Program (which school mental health professionals can co-facilitate with public health nurses) or the Healthy Relationships Program for LGBT2Q+ youth.
Other members of the school community can
Participate in and support school activities that promote wellbeing, inclusion and connection (e.g., Gender Sexuality Alliances; activities and clubs for Indigenous youth or racialized youth).