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 and well-being, bullying, gambling, and other risk behaviours among Ontario students.
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 website.
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 OSDUHS 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.
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 CAMH Research Ethics Board.
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 target sample size for the 2013 OSDUHS is about 11,000 students.
How are the schools and classes selected?
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 native 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.
What do students have to do?
Students under age 18 must get one parent/guardian to sign the consent form before they can participate. 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. 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 anytime. 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 OSDUHS 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. 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.
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.
As a parent, where can I get more information about how to deal with adolescent drug use and mental health issues?
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.
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 and well-being since 1991. Results are used by education and health professionals 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 over thirty 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 substance 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 over the past three 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 Ontario Tobacco Strategy.
- 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 Ontario Ministry of Education and the Ontario Auditor General have used school-related findings, including the bullying estimates, to evaluate school safety in Ontario.
- The current (2012) 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 recent OSDUHS findings.
- The OSDUHS provided first Canadian student estimates of other problem behaviours, such as ecstasy use and the potential misuse of OxyContin and other opioid pain relievers (without a prescription); participating in “choking game” (self-asphyxiation for a euphoric feeling); street racing; and problems related to video gaming.
- Findings about trends in drug use and mental health have been incorporated in several Canadian sociology and psychology textbooks.
- The Toronto-specific results are 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.