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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

OSDUHS turns 40

Hear from the CAMH experts who operate this one-of-a-kind survey

TORONTO, November 17, 2016 - Every two years, the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS) provides insight into the thoughts and behaviours of students in grades 7-12 from across the province: how they feel about their mental health, how much alcohol or other drugs they’re using, as well as other topical questions ranging from social media use, bullying and attitudes toward school, to gambling and body image. The OSDUHS is celebrating 40 years in the field this fall. It is now the longest ongoing school survey in Canada, and one of the longest ones in the world. 

The OSDUHS team met recently to reflect on these 40 years and give us a peek into how its operations are run. Scientists Drs. Robert Mann and Hayley Hamilton are the public face of OSDUHS, at conferences and in the media. Behind the scenes, Angela Boak, Research Methods Specialist and OSDUHS Manager, does study coordination, statistical analyses and leads on drafting the trend reports. Anca Ialomiteanu, Research Methods Specialist and Manager of the CAMH Monitor – the adult version of the survey – also provides input.

Anca Ialomiteany, Dr. Robert Mann and Dr. Hayley Hamilton
(L to R): Anca Ialomiteanu, Dr. Robert Mann and Dr. Hayley Hamilton

How did the OSDUHS begin?

Angela Boak: In 1967, the Toronto District School Board approached the former Addiction Research Foundation (ARF) to ask for help in finding out the extent of drug use in schools. ARF’s Dr. Reginald Smart ran the first surveys in Toronto until 1974. Because there was a lot of interest, the survey was expanded to become province-wide for 1977. Under the direction of Dr. Edward Adlaf, we began asking questions about mental health issues in 1991.

What are the major changes in survey findings over the years, and what stayed the same? Do you have a sense what leads to the changes?

Bob Mann: Substance use has declined overall. The most dramatic change is with teen smoking. Drinking alcohol is down, and so is drinking and driving. Drugs that were major concerns in the 1970s – like LSD, hallucinogens, speed and amphetamine – are much less so now.

Angela: Cannabis use is constant. New issues are always cropping up, like cannabis use and driving, new modes of using cannabis, prescription medication misuse, and new synthetic drugs.

Hayley Hamilton: There are probably many reasons students are using less – health concerns, greater awareness through public campaigns, parental involvement, policy changes. 

How do people use the results?

Bob: Most importantly, the survey highlights what the issues are, and provides direction on what needs attention. For example, in 2007 the OSDUHS showed that one in five students were using powerful opioid prescription drugs non-medically, and this stimulated governments, health-care workers, schools and families to take action on this issue.

Angela: As an example, the Partnership for a Drug-Free Canada used this information in their educational campaign to raise awareness about kids misusing prescription drugs, and they also pointed out that kids were getting these drugs from home, which we had asked about in the survey. 

Hayley: The survey ties in with public policy as well. If there are policy changes, such as drinking and driving penalties, we can look at the next cycle of the survey to see what might be happening with drinking and driving behaviours. It’s an interesting time to observe trends in cannabis use, with the federal discussion around legalization.

Public health units that have collaborated with us have also done wonderful things with their local survey data. For example, Ottawa Public Health has produced its own versions of previous reports, and Durham Region Health Department regularly puts out “Quick Facts” info sheets on different issues such as social media use.

Bob: The media reports on survey results when we first release them, and often use our data for different stories, such as in this recent article on binge drinking in the Globe and Mail.

We also host international guests who’d like to learn how we do our survey. In the past year we’ve met with a delegation from Shanghai and with the researcher who runs a similar survey in the Cayman Islands.

What’s involved in reaching the entire province?

Angela: It takes more than a year to develop, deliver and analyze each survey cycle, and publish the results. We survey a sample of students from publicly-funded schools in Ontario. The survey is administered in classrooms between October and June. In the last cycle in 2015, 750 classes in 220 schools from 43 school boards participated, and more than 10,000 students responded.

Bob: The Institute for Social Research at York University does the field work to administer these surveys. They have trained survey administrators who have to go to every participating classroom, to reach all areas of the province. More than 30 people are involved.

How do you know students are telling the truth?

Angela: We emphasize that the survey is anonymous – nobody’s name is on any survey – and that teachers don’t see any completed questionnaires, to encourage students to respond honestly. We expect there may be a bit of under-reporting as some of the questions ask about sensitive or sometimes illegal behaviours. So our results might be conservative.

And we have our methods for weeding out fake responses, which I can’t give away! These are a tiny fraction of the thousands of surveys, and we delete those surveys from the sample.

What are some challenges in conducting the survey?

Angela:  It’s getting challenging for schools to find time to do the survey, even though they are interested. I’ve noticed many more demands on schools to participate in research these days, and so it becomes tougher each cycle to gain school board approval. There are now more than 30 Research Ethics Committees at boards who must review and approve the survey, compared with two committees about 20 years ago.

It’s difficult when school boards refuse to participate because we strive to get a representative sample of students. That means we need participation from regions across the province, in both English and French schools. One board, in recent memory, insisted there was no drug use in their schools and so they would not participate. School board and school approval is crucial for us to achieve not only a large sample size, but representativeness of the Ontario student population.

Hayley: The survey questions need to be carefully worded. When we introduce new topics, we sometimes have to accommodate school boards and their research ethics committees if they raise questions or concerns about students’ feelings. It’s rare, but we’ve been asked to exclude survey questions we’ve used before, out of concern about students’ feelings. 

Bob: I am happy to say that in the entire 40 years we’ve run the survey, we haven’t had any strong reactions or distress among students in response to the questions.

How do you keep on top of emerging trends? What are some new questions in this cycle?

Bob: We follow the news, keep our ears to the ground, and we’re open to ideas for questions from teachers, provincial ministries of health and education, and colleagues at CAMH. In the current survey, for example, we’ve included a question from the Ministry of Education. 

Hayley: We were also asked to include questions on gender and sexual orientation, and these are included in the current survey.

Angela: We always continue to evolve with the times.

Congratulations on this accomplishment! We look forward to seeing the next OSDUHS results in late 2017.

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