Smoking tobacco and marijuana is down among today’s high school students, but efforts are still being made to reduce substance abuse further. CNS photo

Students lead efforts against substance abuse

By 
  • May 3, 2015

TORONTO - Catholic schools in urban Ontario are taking a softer approach to curbing substance abuse within their communities by focusing on harm reduction awareness.

On May 7 students at St. John Paul II Catholic Secondary School in Toronto are hosting Chill Fair, an awareness event to reduce and ultimately stop smoking at the school.

“I know people who smoke and I know the risks that it can impose on you.” said Chantal Hayles, a member of the A.I.R.S (Aim in Reducing Smoking) Team that is hosting the event. “Some of these people are my close friends or friends of my friends and I care about a lot of people and I just don’t want them to get cancer or have some terrible health issues because of something that they didn’t necessarily have to do. I just want to educate them on the facts and the risks.”

Held over two lunch periods, the event’s highlight is the Age Progression Program which generates images of the subject forecasting the effects of smoking as the years go by.

According to information published by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, “fewer students today are smoking cigarettes ... compared with their counterparts from past decades.” In 2013 only nine per cent of students indicated they smoked within the past year compared to the 44 per cent of youth who smoked in 1977, according to Statistics Canada.

But those figures haven’t lifted the worry from Hayles’ shoulders.

“The majority of people my age they don’t seem to pick up those habits,” said Hayles. “For me it is still sort of a problem. I don’t know if it is a big problem but I know people still want to smoke and still want to get into that kind of scene and culture.”

Hayles, who has a younger brother in Grade 9 at St. John Paul II, said she can tell awareness efforts like Chill Fair have been working on the younger students.

“I feel like they are a whole lot different than the other Grade 9s that have come into the school,” she said.

“They don’t talk about that stuff or behave in that way. They aren’t even thinking about drinking and smoking at that age.”

In the Dufferin-Peel Catholic board, the efforts of proactive education and harm reduction awareness have also been noticed.

“Our curriculum supports informed and responsible choice around substance use,” said Eric Fischer, assistant superintendent of special education and support services. “The use and abuse of many substances has decreased in recent years ... (however) adolescence continues to be a time when some youth choose to experiment.”

According to research conducted in 2011 by the Ontario Public Health Department in Peel Region, only two per cent of high school students reported they were daily smokers, eight per cent drink alcohol weekly and 22 per cent of the more than 8,500 participants tried marijuana at least once in their life.

That’s why on April 7 the board held an awareness event for the entire community at Father Michael Goetz Secondary School. The event was hosted by Stephanie Ruston, a substance use counsellor with the YMCA Peel Employment and Community Centre, who works with a number of the local high schools.

“We did a substances awareness presentation ... to talk about what is going on here in Peel (Region) in terms of substance use and how to support young people,” said Ruston. “We work from a harm-reduction approach so we don’t condemn or condone. We assist young people in assessing the risks and impacts of their use and support them in working towards their goals.”

Last year alone Ruston said the youth self-referral program, which provides those 14 to 24 with free confidential one-to-one substance counselling, served about 350 people and reached more than 72,000 through awareness initiatives.

She said the top three substances used by youth today, and traditionally, are tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. Cocaine and MDMA, or Molly, are also popular among youth. But what substance is being used is less important than figuring out why that substance is being used, something we all do, when trying to curb the problem, she added.

“Everybody is a substance user,” she said, noting the caffeine found in coffee and tea is a drug too. “There is a list of reasons why people continue to use these substances: it could be stress, it could be trauma, it could be just the availability of what is in the area, it could be that they are managing mental health symptoms or it could just be a way to have fun.”

For those seeking to help someone shed the shackles of substance abuse Ruston said the best approach is to start a conversation armed with information.

Hayles sees the positive impact of repeatedly hearing the negative impacts of substance abuse on her peers.

“Hearing it every day it will get into your head,” she said, noting that her school has posters, regularly makes announcements and plays videos on school televisions about the dangers of substance abuse.

“So you are surrounded by it and you pretty much have no choice but to look at it and realize ... that it is nothing special like they see in the movies. They now know that it isn’t even cool.” 

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