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Educating Students about Drug Use and Mental Health - Building Teacher Confidence and Comfort about Substance Use and Abuse: Grades 1-10

Substance use and abuse is one of the four components of the healthy living strand of the Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8, Health and Physical Education. The other sections are:

  • healthy eating
  • growth and development
  • personal safety and injury prevention.

In grades 9 and 10, the other strands are:

  • physical activity
  • active living
  • living skills.

Substance abuse is an issue that touches the lives of many individuals and families in Ontario. It is estimated that four out of every 10 people in Ontario have or have had a family member or a friend who has experienced a problem related to substance use.

As many as one of every five adults in Ontario may have personal experience of these problems as well (Ontario Substance Abuse Bureau, 1999). Research shows that prevention needs to start early. Schools have a unique prevention opportunity to provide ongoing school-based drug education that teaches children the necessary substance use/abuse knowledge and skills to make healthy lifestyle choices.

What is particularly clear is that the "Just Say No" approach to drug education does not work, since there are many variables at play when someone decides to use a substance. Educators are also clear that the term "psychoactive drug" encompasses all substances, other than food, that, when taken, change the way a person thinks, acts or feels. Therefore, the "Just Say No To Drugs" approach is too simplistic and not helpful for young people or others who might be trying to decide whether or not drug use would be a problem for them. Keep in mind that one program can't address all the issues. Making lasting changes in behaviour and attitudes takes a comprehensive approach, a continued effort, and a variety of committed partnerships in your community that are sustained over time.

The Ontario Curriculum states that, "Education is critical to the prevention of drug abuse. Parents, guardians, educators and society in general all have key roles to play in educating students about drug use and abuse."

Alcohol and tobacco are the drugs most readily available to Ontario students, and smoking is the primary cause of preventable illnesses, disabilities and premature deaths in Canada. Learning expectations for substance use and abuse respond to these facts by focussing on understanding the effects of drugs - prescription drugs, non-prescription drugs, illicit drugs, tobacco, alcohol - and the consequences of using them. Students can make and maintain healthy choices if they integrate this knowledge while developing a variety of living skills.

"By using problem-solving, decision-making, refusal and assertiveness skills effectively, learners can select healthy drug-free behaviours based on accurate information." (The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8, Health and Physical Education, Ontario Ministry of Education, 1998)

Substance use is but one of many "adult behaviours" adopted by youth. As youth generally use substances to express their independence and autonomy, this use should not be automatically equated with "substance abuse". Most adolescents who use substances do not progress to problem use or dependency. But for those youth who do develop a substance use problem, it is common to also find a mental health problem. The combination of problem substance use and a mental health concern is referred to as a concurrent disorder. What comes first - the substance use problem or the mental health concern - varies and may be difficult to determine. The two are often intertwined and related. Accordingly, the treatment of both problems must be integrated. If one problem is present, investigate the possibility of the another also being present.

Research has indicated that students who feel attached to their schools are less likely to engage in anti-social behaviour or drug use practices. On the other hand a feeling of alienation or not belonging can lead to behaviour problems, substance use and anti-social activities. The quality of the students' relationships with teachers and their peers influences their sense of belonging. A protective effect is provided by:

  • warm relationships of mutual respect
  • teachers who recognize that children contribute to finding solutions which balance justice, care and truthfulness and conduct their classes based on this philosophy
  • teachers who model positive interpersonal behaviour
  • teacher styles that stimulate active student participation
  • classes that promote democratic attitudes and values
  • classes that foster the normative value of helping

Most teachers already have the necessary skills to teach drug education effectively. However, as in any sensitive subject, developing comfort and confidence with the materials requires ongoing learning. Building a knowledge base on substance use and abuse requires:

  • reviewing relevant information related to substance use and abuse from the perspective of the individual, family, culture and society
  • participating in training opportunities
  • classroom practice and evaluation
  • examining personal values and beliefs related to substance use and abuse
  • reflecting on personal or familial experiences with alcohol and other drugs
  • bringing enthusiasm and commitment to the material
  • awareness of themselves as individual role models.

Classroom teachers have an opportunity, through their own role modelling, knowledge, and teaching of the substance use and abuse curriculum, to make a positive difference in the lifestyle choices of their students.


Silverman, G., Coston, N. & Hershfield, L. (1991). Teacher Training in Prevention: Meeting the Challenge of Alcohol and Other Drugs. Toronto, ON, Addiction Research Foundation.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (1999). Alcohol and Drug Prevention Programs for Youth: What Works? (Best Advice). Toronto, ON, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2001). Youth Scoop #1. Programs that Work with Youth: Is there a secret formula? Toronto, ON, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2002). Youth Scoop #4. Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns in Youth. Toronto, ON, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

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