The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS) is a health survey of Ontario students in grades 7 through 12, conducted every two years since 1977 by CAMH. It is the longest ongoing school survey in Canada, and one of the longest in the world. The main purpose of this anonymous survey is to describe trends in smoking, drinking, drug use, mental health, physical health, bullying, gambling, and other risk behaviours among Ontario students. For forty years the OSDUHS results have been helping public health professionals and governments develop programs and policies that ultimately improve the health and well-being of adolescents.
The questions and answers below are divided into four areas: survey content, methods and administration, information for parents, and survey outcomes.
What types of questions are in the survey?
The questions in the survey cover a range of issues facing young people today, such as smoking, drinking, drug use, mental health, bullying, violence and antisocial behaviours, gambling, video gaming, physical health behaviours, and driving-related behaviours. There are separate questionnaires for grades in elementary schools (grades 7 and 8) and secondary schools (grades 9 through 12). The elementary school questionnaires are shorter than the secondary school questionnaires. All questionnaires are available on the OSDUHS main webpage.
Aren’t some grades you survey too young to be asked about alcohol and drug use?
The younger students (grades 7 and 8) are asked about alcohol and drug use because the survey seeks to examine the developmental course of tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use from pre-adolescence to late adolescence. By studying a wide age range, we can assess the typical age of initiation of substance use and when use becomes more frequent or heavy. This information is very useful in policy and prevention program planning. Further, young adolescents already know about these topics as they are covered in the health education curriculum.
By asking students about drug use, aren’t you giving them ideas to use drugs or encouraging this behaviour?
No. There is no evidence that simply asking students about a behaviour will encourage them to try that behaviour. Surveys such as the OSDUHS have been conducted for decades and most show decreases over time in student drug use and other harmful behaviours. The questions in the survey cover topics that most, if not all, youth are already exposed to in everyday life. Further, the benefits of these studies far outweigh any potential risks. Some schools use the OSDUHS experience as a conduit to discussions about health-related topics such as smoking, drinking and other drug use, bullying, mental health, etc. The OSDUHS questionnaire and procedures have been approved by the research ethics boards at CAMH and York University.
Why should students participate?
Many adults have impressions about young people that are not based on fact, but rather on stereotypes and media headlines. It’s important to know about young people’s own experiences, their problems, and their beliefs. The survey results provide an accurate picture of what it’s like growing up in today’s world.
How many students participate in the survey?
The OSDUHS surveys thousands of students in grades 7 through 12 in big cities, small towns, and rural areas across the province. The sample size in the 2015 OSDUHS cycle was just over 10,400 students.
How are the schools and classes selected?
Typically, about 200 elementary/middle schools and high schools are selected to represent students in grades 7 through 12 in Ontario. All schools are selected randomly (by chance) from a list of all public and Catholic schools in Ontario provided by the Ministry of Education. Private schools, schools on First Nations reserves, military bases, custodial or treatment facilities, and those in the remote Northern regions are not selected. After schools are selected, a few classes in those schools are randomly selected. Just because a school or class is selected does not mean that there is a problem in that school or class.
Can a school volunteer to be in the survey?
No, our sample of schools must be randomly selected (by chance) according to the survey’s design in order to maintain scientific integrity.
What do teachers/school staff have to do?
Trained staff members from the Institute for Social Research (ISR), at York University, administer the survey in classrooms (on behalf of CAMH). Teachers and school staff are only asked to distribute and collect the provided active parental consent forms before the date of the survey. They are not required to be present in the classroom during the survey, but can be if they wish. To make it convenient for schools, the survey can be administered on any date between October and May (or June, if necessary).
What do students have to do?
Students under age 18 who want to participate in the survey need to get one parent/guardian to sign the consent form before they can participate. Students must also sign the form and return it to their classroom teacher. Then, on the day of the survey, they complete a questionnaire in their classrooms. They do not write their name anywhere on the questionnaire, so they cannot be identified. The questionnaire is in a booklet form and students check off their answers from a list of response options. The questionnaires are not answered on a computer. Students can skip any question that makes them feel uncomfortable. After students have finished, the questionnaires are collected by ISR staff and taken back to ISR at York University for data entry. Teachers do not see students' answers.
Do students have a choice?
Of course they do. Participation in the survey is completely voluntary. Plus, if a student begins the survey, he/she can stop at any time. We think once students know that their opinions count, they will agree that this is an important study to be part of.
How long does it take to complete the questionnaire?
One class period is needed. It takes approximately 10 minutes for the survey administrator to distribute survey questionnaires and instruct the students. It then takes approximately 30 to 35 minutes for students to complete the questionnaire.
Who sees the answers?
Students’ answers are only seen by the data entry staff at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), who administers the survey on CAMH’s behalf. The answers cannot be connected to individual students or school records. Teachers and principals will not see students’ answers.
Is the survey confidential and anonymous?
Yes, it is. We do NOT want students to write their names anywhere on the questionnaires. We are only interested in the student population as a whole. Responses to the questionnaire cannot be linked back to any individual. No names of participating school boards or schools are ever made public. All information gathered in the study is strictly confidential.
Do schools or students get paid for participating in the survey?
Neither schools nor students are paid for participating. Participating schools receive highlights reports describing the provincial drug use findings and the mental health and well-being findings. In the 2017 cycle, we will give teachers of participating classes a Tim Hortons gift card to thank them for their assistance with the distribution and collection of the parental consent forms (this may depend on school board policy).
Is parental permission obtained before a student can participate in the survey?
Yes, we use active parental consent procedures in our study meaning that a student can only participate in the survey if he/she has returned a signed parental consent form before the survey administration date. The student also must provide a signature on the form if he/she is willing to participate. Students aged 18 and older do not need the signature of a parent/guardian. Click below to download the parental consent forms for elementary and secondary school students:
My child doesn't drink alcohol or use other drugs and is healthy, why should he/she participate?
It is important for us to gather information about the general population of students in grades 7-12, including those who do and do not engage in risk behaviours. To get a true picture of the health and well-being of youth today, we need to now know about those who do not drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, for example, just as it is important to know about those youth who do engage in these behaviours. The survey also asks about health-promoting behaviours such as healthy eating, physical activity, and use of bike helmets, which apply to everyone.
Can I see my child's answers?
No. This is an anonymous survey and therefore your child will be asked to NOT put his/her name on the questionnaire. We cannot link responses back to any individual.
Where can I get more information about how to deal with adolescent drug use and mental health issues?
This survey provides an opportunity to talk with your children about alcohol, drugs, bullying, anxiety, and many other issues. To help with those conversations, CAMH provides many resources for parents
,such as brochures, videos, and podcasts, and resources for children and youth
, such as brochures and storybooks. CAMH has developed a new resource
for parents who are concerned about their child's use of technology, such as smartphones and video games.
CAMH’s Child, Youth & Family Program offers
clinical treatment, as well as education, prevention and health
promotion services related to child and youth mental health and
addictions. CAMH also offers treatment for problem technology use for youth older than age 16, and their parents.
How are the results used?
Results are available to the public in two OSDUHS reports, one about trends in drug use since 1977, and the other about trends in mental health, physical health and well-being since 1991. Results are used by education and health professionals and governments to identify areas of concern and emerging trends, and to create programs and policies in Ontario. Certain collaborating Ontario public health units/departments purchase oversamples of students in order to look at student health and well-being in their respective health regions. The media frequently use the results when covering issues affecting youth.
For 40 years the OSDUHS has proven to be a valuable resource for school and health professionals working with youth and has contributed to the evidence-base used by governmental and non-governmental organizations to respond to youth issues, such as drug use prevention and harm reduction programs. The OSDUHS also provides scientific findings that are useful in dispelling myths and misconceptions about youth behaviour, and challenging anecdotal and media reports.
Below are some specific examples of how the survey results have been used during the past four decades:
- OSDUHS findings have been used in the development of CAMH’s school curriculum guidelines for physical health, mental health, and gambling.
- The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit rely on OSDUHS data about youth tobacco use, purchasing behaviour, and exposure to environmental tobacco smoke in order to assist in monitoring the Smoke-Free Ontario Strategy.
- The Ontario Ministry of Education and the Ontario Auditor General have used OSDUHS school-related findings, including the bullying trends, to evaluate school safety in Ontario.
- The Canadian Public Health Association’s 2005 national
campaign to raise awareness about cannabis use and driving was largely
brought about by the only Canadian estimate (and trends) for this
problem provided by the OSDUHS.
- The current (2012-present) television and radio campaigns by the Partnership for a Drug-Free Canada to raise awareness about the potential for youth to misuse prescription drugs found in the home, as well to drive after using drugs, were brought about because of OSDUHS findings.
- The OSDUHS provided first Canadian student estimates of numerous risk and problem behaviours such as: traumatic brain injury, synthetic cannabis use, use of cannabis in an e-cigarette, ecstasy use, the misuse of OxyContin and other opioid pain relievers (without a prescription), participating in the “choking game” (self-asphyxiation for a euphoric feeling), street racing, video gaming problems, and texting while driving.
- Findings about trends in drug use and mental health have been incorporated in several Canadian sociology and psychology textbooks.
- The Toronto-specific results were used in the annual Toronto’s Vital Signs Report, the Toronto Police Service’s Environmental Scan, and to evaluate Toronto Public Health’s drug strategy.