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About This Resource

What It Does

This article talks about:

Why people use substances
What kinds of substances people use
When substance use becomes a problem

How It Helps

This resource can help you:

Understand the risks of substance use
Know when you or a loved one should get support for substance use

This article talks about:

Why people use substances
What kinds of substances people use
When substance use becomes a problem

This resource can help you:

Understand the risks of substance use
Know when you or a loved one should get support for substance use
Thank you [Kids Help Phone responder] for not judging me, allowing me to speak and be heard. I feel less upset than when I texted and appreciate everything you did.

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Many people use substances like caffeine, prescription medication, and alcohol. It’s possible to use substances in a safe and healthy way. But sometimes, our relationship with substances becomes unhealthy.

Substance use becomes a problem when it starts to have harmful effects on a person’s life. This could look like difficulties at school or at home. It could also result in negative impacts on mental and/or physical health.

All substances can affect the body and the brain. This could be both temporary and long-term. Some substances have higher risks and more dangerous impacts than others. It’s important to know all the facts about a substance — including the risks — before you use it.

Here are some examples of substances people may use:

  • tobacco and nicotine (in things like cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vapes, hookah, etc.)

  • alcohol

  • cannabis (also known as marijuana, weed, or pot)

  • stimulants (e.g. cocaine, meth, etc.)

  • opiates (e.g. heroin, oxys, fentanyl, etc.)

  • sedatives (e.g. prescription drugs such as Ativan, Valium, Xanax, etc.)

  • hallucinogens (e.g. LSD, magic mushrooms, etc.)

  • inhalants (e.g. glue, gasoline, etc.)

Why do people use substances?

People use substances for a variety of reasons. Some may use substances out of curiosity. Others do because they’re influenced by their friends, family, and/or peers.

All substances affect our mood. Some can make the brain “feel good” — at least temporarily. People might use substances to cope with difficult feelings like sadness, anxiety, or anger. Or, they use them when stress becomes more than they know how to handle.

Even into their twenties, young people’s brains are still developing. This means the “judgment” part of the brain is still growing. A young person’s brain can have difficulty knowing how much is “too much” and knowing when to stop. They might not fully understand the risks of long-term substance use. Some of these long-term risks include impacts on internal organs, brain function, attention span, and memory.

If a person uses a substance often, it can cause chemical changes in their brain and body. This can make it difficult to stop using. For example, many drugs make people “feel good” because they make the brain produce too much dopamine.

Dopamine is a naturally occurring brain chemical. Eating, exercising, meditating, and listening to music are some activities that produce dopamine. When it is released, a person may experience feelings of euphoria, happiness, and pleasure.

But when a person’s dopamine level drops, they may not have those same good feelings. This can happen if somebody stops using a drug, or when their body gets used to taking it. This is partly because their brain has lost some of its natural ability to produce dopamine. They may want to continue using the drug in order to experience those good feelings again. Or, it could be to mask any not-so-good feelings (e.g. sadness, anxiety, anger, etc.) they may be dealing with.

Struggling with substance use can be difficult. It’s not easy to stop completely. Withdrawal refers to the symptoms that someone experiences when they drastically reduce or completely stop using substances (going "cold turkey"). The symptoms can be physical or emotional. They may include anything from mild discomfort (such as a headache) to seizures. Some of the effects of withdrawal can be fatal.

When does substance use become a problem?

“Addiction” is a term often used to describe when a behaviour is out of control, often in a harmful way. The meaning of addiction may vary by person or culture. When it comes to the risks and harms of substance use, we prefer to use the terms “problematic substance use” or “substance use problem.” These terms describe the use of a substance over time that causes negative effects.

The presence of one or more of these factors can be a sign of a substance use problem:

  • craving a substance (feeling like you have to have it)

  • feeling out of control over how much or how often you use a substance

  • feeling a compulsion (urge) to use a substance

  • using a substance despite negative effects

The risks and harms of substance use can range from mild to severe. They may also vary depending on the substance. These harms may include:

  • missing school and/or work because of substance use

  • trying to cut down or quit unsuccessfully

  • feeling like you need a substance to have fun

  • lying about or hiding substance use from friends/family

  • not being able to have just one drink (hit, dose, etc.) or bingeing (using a lot at one time)

  • building an increased tolerance to the substance; gradually needing more and more of it to get the same feeling

  • spending a lot of time planning how you will get and use the substance

  • avoiding situations or activities where no substances will be present

  • potentially harmful behaviour while under the influence of a substance (e.g. illegal activity, unsafe sex, etc.)

There are things that can help protect a young person from developing a substance use problem. They include:

  • having a positive role model or mentor. (e.g. a parent/caregiver, teacher, or coach)

  • having parents or other caregivers regularly available to them

  • feeling a strong sense of connection to their family, school, or community

  • having goals and dreams for the future

  • participating in extracurricular activities. (e.g. clubs, sports teams, or volunteer work)

What are the risks of substance use?

There are physical, emotional, and social risks associated with substance use. Here are some examples:

Physical risks
  • an overdose can cause serious physical or mental damage, or even death.

  • alcohol can cause liver damage.

  • people who inject substances with used needles can get viral infections such as hepatitis or HIV-AIDS.

  • substance use during pregnancy can harm the fetus.

  • people who use illegally obtained substances can’t be sure what they’re taking (e.g. some drugs may be mixed with other drugs/chemicals that can be harmful).

  • driving under the influence (i.e. while drunk or high) can affect your attention, reaction time, and ability to judge distances. This can put you and others in danger.

  • some substances can affect coordination, the senses, memory, and judgment. This can lead to safety risks (like stumbling into traffic).

Emotional risks
  • substance use can get in the way of learning healthier coping strategies to deal with difficult feelings.

  • substance use can sometimes make emotional difficulties worse in the long run. This is especially true for young people. Substances can put young people at risk of mental health challenges like depression and psychosis.

  • some substances can cause short-term confusion, anxiety or mental disturbances, learning problems, or memory loss.

Social risks
  • substance use may put stress on a person’s relationships. It can increase the likelihood of conflict with others around them. This could include their parents/caregivers, partners, friends, and teachers.

  • substance use can interfere with a person’s ability to function at their best at school or work.

  • some substances are illegal. Because of this, substance use can be associated with violence, and crime.

  • substance-related convictions may result in a fine, prison sentence, and criminal record. Having a criminal record may affect future convictions, jobs, and travel.

If you choose to use substances, it’s important to have all the facts. If you’re concerned that you or someone you know has a substance use problem, there are resources to help. You can search Resources Around Me for support services in your area. If you have questions about substance use, you can always call a Kids Help Phone counsellor at 1-800-668-6868.