CHECKERED FLAGS

Substance Use

General Information

Substance use (including gambling and gaming): Substance use is considered problematic when it begins to have a negative impact on a person’s life. Sometimes these problems can be caused by a regular pattern of alcohol or drug misuse. However, even irregular consumption of large amounts of a substance, such as alcohol, can lead to serious consequences for a person.


A 2011 survey of Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 found that

  • alcohol, high-caffeine energy drinks, and cannabis were the substances used most often by students.
  • 22.3% of students in Ontario had engaged in binge drinking (5 or more drinks on one occasion).
  • the number of students engaged in substance use increases with grade level.
  • 36.2% of students reported using no substances (including alcohol and tobacco).

Gambling: Gambling occurs when someone risks something of value (e.g., money, iPods, jewellery, etc.) on a game, contest, or event where the outcome is uncertain (you do not know if you will win or lose).


A 2011 survey of Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 found that

  • the most prevalent gambling activities are playing card games and betting in sports pools and on other activities.
  • about 2% of students report symptoms of a gambling problem, with males more likely to do so than females.

Gaming: Experts are comparing video game addiction to other non-substance-related behaviours, such as compulsive gambling. Currently no clinical diagnosis exists for video game addiction, but the general characteristics are similar to those for substance use and gambling.A 2011 survey of Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 found that


  • 23% of students play video games daily or almost daily, with boys more likely to do so than girls.12% report symptoms of a video gaming problem.
  • Boys are three times as likely as females to have a video gaming problem.

Substance use and mental health: Some youth who develop a substance use problem may also have a mental health problem

General Characteristics To Look For

The best way to determine whether or not teens may be harmfully involved with alcohol, drugs, or gambling is to look at what is happening in different areas of their lives. Changes in what would be considered typical behaviour for teens should be noted. Here are some examples of signs to be aware of:


  • changes at school: marks, attendance, attitude towards school, behaviour problems
  • emotional changes: mood swings, increased defiance, anxiety, paranoia
  • social changes: changes in peer group, decreased interest in activities previously enjoyed, sudden increased popularity, loss of friends, secretive about friends/activities
  • legal problems: alcohol or drug charges; theft, assault, or other illegal behaviour while under the influence
  • physical changes: weight loss, tired/run down, atypical amounts of energy, appetite changes, frequent illnesses, increase in accidents, memory problems, less concern about appearance, change in sleeping patterns
  • changes in family relationships: withdrawing from family, no longer following rules at home, isolating self, increased tension at home
  • financial changes: increase in spending money, their own or other’s possessions are missing, money is spent with nothing to show for it, frequent job changes

It is common for parents and other concerned adults to feel the need to catch a teen using or gambling in order to feel that they have proof. These feeling are often motivated by a natural desire to protect kids and keep them safe. If you have noticed changes in a teen you care about, you should express concern to them. The way in which this concern is communicated will have a lot to do with how it is received.

Impact On Student Success

  • Peer pressure: Young people may give in to pressures from other youth to try drugs. They may use a drug to feel part of the crowd or to act grown-up.
  • Pleasure: Some teenagers say they take drugs to feel good.
  • Curiosity or experimentation: Teenagers may be tempted to try a drug to find out what it is like. Usually people who use a drug for this reason do not continue use for long periods of time.
  • Boredom: If they lack outside activities and interests after school, young people may want to try something new and exciting. The 9:00 to 3:30 routine may be as boring to children as the 9:00 to 5:00 routine is for many adults.
  • Self-esteem: Young people, like adults, often use drugs to try to feel more confident about themselves. Drugs make them feel more important and powerful and less vulnerable.
  • Coping with stress: Many young people have not fully developed their problem-solving skills. Some of them use drugs to help cope with problems at school, in the family, and with social relationships.
  • Escapism: Drugs can make things seem better than they really are. Problems don’t seem as real or important.
  • Rebellion: Young people may use drugs to rebel against authority figures (e.g., parents/caregivers, teachers).
  • Mental health: Drug use may be an indicator of underlying mental health issues.

Common Reasons People Use Substances And Engage In Other Addictive Behaviours

To feel good: Most drugs and gambling can induce feelings of pleasure. Stimulants, such as caffeine, can make people feel powerful and more confident, and they also increase energy. Depressants, such as alcohol, often leave people feeling relaxed and satisfied. Thinking about winning at gambling can be very exciting, and an actual win can make you feel important, successful, skilled, and very happy.


To feel better: Often people use drugs to “take the edge off” and feel comfortable. This often occurs when people are experiencing social anxiety or stress. Substance use can also lesson feelings of distress that often accompany trauma and depression. People may also use gambling to escape depression, anxiety, or stress.


To do better: Many people also use substances to help them perform tasks better. They make take a stimulant to stay awake and study or steroids to make them a better athlete.


For curiosity or social interaction: Engaging in substance use and gambling can help people to build connections with others. As well, these activities are often exciting, which can be attractive to people who have a particular need for novelty and a higher than usual tolerance for risk.

  • Provide guidance and support, and help young people to make smart decisions.
  • Know the general signs or symptoms indicating that a teen may have a substance use or gambling problem.
  • Help facilitate connections and referrals to community mental health supports.
  • Incorporate lessons about substance use and gambling into the curriculum.
  • Talk to students about why individuals may use drugs or participate in other addictive behaviours, and emphasize positive alternatives.
  • Make students aware of resources they can access for information and guidance.
  • Be aware of services/agencies that can provide help to students, and work to facilitate connections.
  • Consider that a student may have school, family, or mental health issues and may be using drugs to self-medicate.
  • Follow protocols and collaborate with community agencies that can assist in supporting students.
  • Provide professional development opportunities for relevant staff.
  • Take into consideration cultural and religious factors and be sensitive to their influence.
  • Be informed: Learn as much as you can about alcohol, other drugs, gambling, and gaming and how people use them. Talk it over with someone else, such as one of the community partners listed in this Guidebook.
  • Do not overstate the facts: Children will know from personal experience whether you are trying to frighten them. Leave relevant printed material and website addresses in an accessible place in your home.
  • Discuss drug issues and information: Ask your children for their opinions on drugs and gambling. Help them develop the necessary skills to talk through difficult decisions and dilemmas, and encourage them to weigh the pros and cons before making a decision.
  • Be honest: Let them know when you do not have an answer, or talk about some of the dilemmas you have faced with drugs or gambling. For example, if you smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol regularly, or buy lottery tickets, talk with them about how these activities have impacted you.
  • Model responsible behaviour: If you drink, set a good example, e.g., socialize without drinking, drink within low-risk drinking guidelines, don’t drink and drive, etc. If you gamble, set a limit on the money you spend, and emphasize that it is a form of entertainment, not a way to make money.
  • Complete a formal/informal assessment of the young person as needed.
  • Refer the young person to an appropriate program.
  • Educate families and school personnel on addiction issues and concerns.
  • Encourage families to seek support for themselves.
  • Coordinate meetings with all concerned parties to develop and monitor a plan of action. Maintain contact with the youth until the referral is picked up by an appropriate service.