Thousands of young people hospitalized due to cannabis and other substance use, report reveals

A new report says thousands of young people in Canada were hospitalized last year due to cannabis, alcohol and other substance use, and experts say the numbers highlight the need for more mental health supports in the community.

Last year, more than 23,500 youths were hospitalized for harm from substance use

Cannabis accounted for nearly 40 per cent of hospital stays among youth for harm from substance use, according to a new Canadian report. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)

About 65 young people in Canada per day land in hospital because of harm caused by cannabis, alcohol, opioids and other substances, according to a new report.

Clinicians and a former user say the findings from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) highlight the desperate need for more community supports to help those with mental health concerns.

The institute released the report, titled "Hospital stays for harm caused by substance use among youth age 10 to 24," on Thursday. The figures present a snapshot of the hospital stays in those age groups in 2017-2018, before the legalization of cannabis.

Last year, more than 23,500 youth were hospitalized for harm from substance use, the report says. In comparison, about 8,000 were hospitalized for illnesses related to the appendix. 

The findings highlight the need to focus attention on youth who experience harm caused by substance use and have mental health conditions occurring at the same time, as well as those who live in lower-income or rural and remote areas, the report's authors said.

Cannabis accounted for nearly 40 per cent of those hospital stays among youth, followed by alcohol-related hospitalizations at about 26 per cent.

Missed opportunities

Dr. Joanna Henderson, a psychologist and senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says the report shows perspectives on substance abuse need to expand, especially when nearly 70 per cent of the hospitalizations for harm caused by substance use involve mental health conditions, as well.

That's nearly double the proportion among those aged 25 and older.

"We need adequate services in the hospital but we also need to be thinking about how are we intervening sooner," said Henderson, who was not involved in the research.

"We are missing opportunities like schools, local malls … where young people are."

Young people need places in communities that are one-stop shops to connect them with employment, education, housing and health services, including mental health and substance use, she said.

'You're not alone'

Lucas Wade, 31, first started smoking cannabis at 17 "out of peer pressure," he said.  At age 20, he was toking daily for pleasure along with boozing. 

"I was admitted to hospital after my roommate found me after trying to suicide because I couldn't stop smoking pot, no matter what," Wade said. "I couldn't keep living that way."

Wade ended up homeless when a landlord evicted him for smoking indoors after signing a contract saying he wouldn't.

Wade studied social work and now works as a support counselor in Toronto, where he sees many youth with underlining mental health issues using substances as a coping mechanism.

The first step is to talk to someone close to you, such as a best friend, parent or sibling, Wade said.

"If you're the youth, find a safe space or people where you can share and talk about this stuff because it is so hard. When you're in the throes of it, you feel so alone. You're not alone."

Previous research suggests young people with pre-existing mental health concerns can be at higher risk for problematic substance use and it occur in the other direction as well, Henderson said.

It's important not only to collect consistent data across Canada regularly to find any changes but to speak to young people about their experience with how services are delivered, she added.

About 17 per cent of the youth were hospitalized more than once in the same fiscal year, according to CIHI. That's another red flag for the need for better community supports, clinicians say.

Hospitalization rates varied by province and territory. The hospital stays are "the tip of the iceberg when it comes to estimating harm caused by substance use," CIHI said, and doesn't include fatal overdoses in the community.

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | (chat).

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553).

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), (live chat counselling).

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.



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