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Substance misuse awareness

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, mental health challenges had been exacerbated and it’s no surprise. Many Canadians experienced stress, anxiety, low moods, anger, frustration and so much more. Due to these challenges, The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) found that substance use also increased1.

Over the course of the pandemic, provincial studies have shown that as much as 45% of the adult population reported that their mental health has deteriorated.2 In general, 30% of individuals diagnosed with a mental health disorder will also have a substance use disorder at some point in their life, often at the same time.3 Throughout one’s life in Canada, 1 in 5 people will personally experience a mental illness or addiction problem4 but despite these numbers, many don’t reach out for help.

There’s something we can do about this though - we can all play our part in removing the stigma around mental health challenges and if you’re struggling, look to develop healthier coping mechanisms to handle life’s challenges and access professional support. On behalf of our experts, here is some key information to increase your awareness on substance misuse:

SIGNS OF UNHEALTHY SUBSTANCE USE
You yourself may be struggling with substance use or you may know someone who is. But what are the signs exactly?

To start, you or someone you know may be missing school, work or other important obligations; the individual cares less about the parts of life they once cared about; there could be changes to sleeping and eating patterns; reduced concentration or memory; increased secrecy about activities or whereabouts; mood changes, irritability or personality changes may be present; and there could be signs of a new friend group who aren’t as connected to home or school.

These are just a few signs identified by the Canadian Mental Health Association5 but only a licensed professional can diagnose a substance use disorder. However, it’s important to know what to look out for and keep a close eye on loved ones or yourself to prevent mental health challenges from developing further.

REDUCING STIGMA
One of the primary reasons those who struggle don’t reach out for help is due to stigma. Stigma is a result of a lack of knowledge about mental health conditions either in the form of ignorance or misinformation. Or, it could be a matter of prejudice which means that some may have a negative attitude or belief towards those who struggle with mental health and addiction. How can we play our part in reducing the stigma?

First of all, know the facts – educate yourself about mental illness and substance use disorders; be aware of your attitude and behavior, especially judgmental thinking that may have been reinforced by society; choose your words carefully; educate others; focus on the positive; support people and be inclusive.6 Normalizing can also help – if someone opens up to you, normalize their experience which helps reduce the shame and stigma they’re experiencing. Let them know their emotions are valid and normal, and that they’re not alone in what they’re going through.

ALTERNATIVE COPING STRATEGIES FOR DIFFICULT EMOTIONS
If you find that you yourself or someone you care for is under emotional distress and reaching for a substance to cope, consider healthier coping strategies while also reaching out to a mental health professional. Here are a few healthy coping tools:

  • Get active. 
    • Maybe you’ve been sitting all day. Or holding yourself in one position. Or performing a repetitive action for hours. If stress or other challenging emotions are bogging you down, get active. It doesn’t need to be full-on CrossFit or a marathon. Devote a few minutes to stretch, take the dog for a walk, or water the garden.
  • Time with friends. 
    • If you’ve had a tough day, week, month, etc. - see if you can meet some friends. It will give you something to look forward to. Hanging out with a friend over coffee helps you get out of your stressed-out headspace. An outside-of-work friend can give you some needed perspective, even if you don’t talk about your troubles at all.
  • Have a good meal. 
    • Taking care of your body will help improve your mental state. Why not make your favorite food to cope with negative emotions? Stop at the grocery store and get some of your favorite nourishing ingredients. You’ll have a healthy activity to help you cope with more difficult emotions in addition to consuming a healthy meal.

ACCESS SUPPORT
If you are concerned about your own well-being or about a friend, family member or a colleague struggling with substance misuse, our therapists are available to help. Our programs are outlined in our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic or, if you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your workplace. 

This article has been reviewed by Jaeyell Kim, MSW, RSW.


  1. Mental Health and Substance Use During COVID-19 | Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (ccsa.ca)
  2. The Daily — Survey on COVID-19 and Mental Health, February to May 2021 (statcan.gc.ca)
  3. concurrent-disorders-guide-en.pdf (camh.ca)
  4. Fast Facts about Mental Health and Mental Illness - CMHA National
  5. Understanding and finding help for substance use and addictions (cmha.ca)
  6. Addressing Stigma | CAMH

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Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.