Youth inform drug misuse prevention efforts working
By Erin Knutson
East Kootenay Addiction Services Society (EKASS) is on the frontline of addictions outreach, prevention, education, and research in British Columbia and across Canada.
“The goal is to normalize and de-stigmatize the issue, and there is still a long way to go,” said Dean Nicholson, executive director for EKASS at their regional headquarters in Cranbrook.
Setting the tone for other provinces, B.C., is reframing the conversation around mental health and addictions by normalizing, de-stigmatizing, and educating youth populations and the public on substance use and misuse according to Nicholson.
Improvements in youth addictions have been documented through a region-wide survey conducted by his organization in partnership with Interior Health Authority and the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
The Adolescent Substance Use Survey (ASUS) examined drug use in students Grades 7 to 12 in the East Kootenay and was undertaken in March of 2019 to monitor drug use patterns, behaviours, and attitudes in local adolescents. The survey was first implemented in 2002 by the agency for stats research and to define target areas for proactive measures.
This is the ninth survey EKASS has conducted since then, and it reflects a downtrend on substance misuse, partly due to a shifting approach to public outreach and education, and partly due to the presentation of correct information to the public surrounding the often shrouded and taboo subject of addictions.
“Our goal is to undo myths around substance misuse that lead to stigmatization and discrimination,” said Nicholson on shifting the polarizing perception of the public on addictions. “The goal is to eliminate the us versus them way of thinking.”
Substance misuse is not isolated to socioeconomic background, race, sex, or generation in particular, and it often correlates with other unaddressed issues according to findings. Though specific trends were observed in the survey regarding user demographics, the majority of youth (80%), partake in substance use once a week.
“The remaining 20% who uses more than three times a week represents a group that might be struggling with underlying factors such as undiagnosed mental-health issues (though not exclusive to) and reaching this population is key,” said Nicholson.
Educating the young is a huge preventative step and fostering positive and informed attitudes among the youth and their peers to recognize a problem and to take action are part of a new strategy EKASS has exacted with their research and outreach efforts in school settings.
“We can encourage them to seek help and to recognize that there is a problem and to be proactive—substance misuse is often a symptom of a larger problem,” he said.
Targeting substance use is essential, and the stats have shown that alcohol and tobacco are of the most substantial concern. By exacting specifics, Nicholson and his team are better able to understand what drugs are available to youth and how they are interacting with them.
Educating children about a drug like cocaine is mostly ineffective as was the majority of the anti-drug campaigns in the media, according to Nicholson, who said that the information passed along was often inaccurate.
“Drugs don’t create holes in the brain, they can, however, disrupt neural pathways, and create problems down the line in the health of the brain, possibly leading to an increased chance of developing mental health disorders later in life,” he said.
According to the survey, the work in informed education is paying off, and youth are aware of the problems associated with regular drug use, including marijuana, which has not seen increased usage in adolescents since its legalization.
The opioid crisis resulted from the tightening of prescription opioids, leaving room in the market for uncontrolled substances.
“People don’t know what they’re getting and often accidentally take too much, resulting in many of the overdoses we’re seeing,” said Nicholson.
Fentanyl and opioid abuse and related drug use continue to be a public health concern in the province, but since ASUS started tracking opioid misuse in East Kootenay youth in 2015, a decrease has been reported.
“In 2015, 12.6% of youth reported having misused an opioid. This decreased to seven per cent in 2019. There was a similar decline in the inappropriate use of depressant medications such as benzodiazepines, which dropped from 11.4% of youth in 2015 to 7.6% in 2019,” taken from the ASUS survey results
Results from the ASUS survey and the importance of tracking drug use in youth populations in the East Kootenay speaks to the awareness that is being created by organizations like EKASS.
Educating the community on topics such as harm reduction, mental health, and moderate substance use with a model designed for early prevention, awareness, and demystification are essential tools in creating healthier adult populations and combatting substance misuse, according to Nicholson.
“Hopefully this decrease in use and the continued efforts to provide education on overdose prevention and the distribution of Naloxone kits by EKASS and partner agencies will further reduce the risk of future overdoses amongst our region’s youth.”
For more information on the survey visit EKASS
Lead image contributed by EKASS