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An estimated 47,000 people die each year from substance abuse in Canada. This is a devastating statistic that doesn’t include the families, friends, and loved ones affected by those who die from overdoses.

Statistics from major Canadian cities point to the fact that the country is facing a substance abuse crisis – especially when it comes to opioid overdoses.

Addressing substance abuse is tricky because the issue is so complex and multifaceted, with different people in different circumstances falling victim to abusing different drugs. 

Substance abuse is not just about illegal drugs, some of the most harmful substances – alcohol and prescribed opiates – are legal.

While we can’t address the problem as a whole, we can help you to learn more about substance abuse, how to identify the symptoms, and how to approach seeking help for yourself or a loved one.

By understanding the problem and breaking down the stigma around substance abuse, we can help more people seek help, recover, and live healthier and happier life.

What Is Substance Abuse?

To understand substance abuse, we need to separate it from addiction. 

Addiction and substance abuse are actually very different – addiction is someone’s dependency on a substance, but substance abuse is the dangerous way in which someone uses a substance.

The definition of substance abuse is the excessive use of psychoactive drugs, leading to physical, social, and emotional harm.

In the most extreme circumstances, substance abuse leads to overdose and death.

When considering substance abuse in Canada, you might immediately think about the growing opioid crisis that has killed thousands of people in just the last few years.

While the opioid crisis is certainly a massive and increasing problem in our country, it’s one of many types of substance abuse affecting Canadians from all walks of life.

Substance abuse isn’t just related to illicit opiates like heroin, but legal drugs as well. Legal substances like alcohol and prescription drugs are also a huge part of the problem. This highlights the fact that just because a substance is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Before we delve into the potential reasons for and causes of substance abuse in Canada, let’s take a look at the types of substances that are used excessively and harmfully in Canada.

We’ll be talking about three types:

  1. Prescription drugs
  2. Illegal drugs
  3. Alcohol

Prescription Drugs

prescription drug

Medications prescribed to patients by a doctor come with specific instructions on how they should be taken. Prescription drugs are only safe when used as prescribed, but problems arise when people misuse and abuse them.

Substance Type Purpose Examples
Opioids Pain relief Codeine, tramadol, morphine, methadone
Sedatives Treat anxiety and help with sleep problems Benzodiazepines (Xanax and Valium), barbiturates (Phenobarbital)
Stimulants Treat patients with ADHD Dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate (Ritalin), a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderal)

Illegal Drugs

When people use illegal drugs, there is a high chance that they will abuse them. 

Unlike pharmaceuticals or legal substances, illegal drugs are not regulated or consistent in potency. This means that the same dosage might be safe one time, then fatal another time, because there’s no incentive for suppliers to have consistency. 

Illegal drugs can also be ‘cut’ with other, far more harmful, substances. For example, police in Alberta estimated that 70-70% of ecstasy sold on the street contained methamphetamine. A college student buying ecstasy pills for the first time for a party might end up in a much worse state, or even overdosing because they didn’t know their pill contained meth.

Let’s examine some of the most common illegal drugs that are abused in Canada:

Substance Effects Harm in Canada
Cocaine Cocaine is a stimulant that produces a pleasurable high. Is it snorted in powder form or injected when mixed with water. Increasing contribution to drug toxicity deaths in Canada. In Ontario, 142 deaths in 2021 rose to 587 in 2017.
Ecstacy MDMA manipulates serotonin levels in the brain. Users feel energetic, euphoric, and confident. It is most commonly taken in capsule form and more popular in teens and college students. Aside from the many long-term effects of MDMA, people using ecstasy are at risk of substance abuse due to the harmful active ingredients found in their pills. In 2016-2017, Canadian authorities found bath salts and meth in much of the ecstasy tested.
Methamphetamine Meth is a stimulant that overwhelms the brain with dopamine. Meth is extremely addictive and has a devastating impact on long-term users. National use of meth is low, but its harmful use is increasing in certain regions. Alberta, Manitoba, and British Columbia have experienced an increase in hospitalizations for meth of 800%, 600%, and 500% respectively
Heroin Heroin is a depressant that comes from morphine. It is a depressant that mimics the painkilling effect of endorphins that occur naturally in the brain. Heroin is deadly when it contains fentanyl – a few grains of fentanyl can easily kill an adult. In October 2020, Toronto experienced the highest number of opioid-related deaths.



alcohol addiction

Alcohol is the most popular drug used by Canadians. If you’re reading this, you have likely enjoyed an alcoholic beverage at least once before.

When consumed in moderation by drinkers of the legal age (17 in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec; 18 elsewhere in Canada), alcohol can be safe and enjoyable. 


  • At least 20% of drinkers consume above government guidelines
  • Alcohol-related harm costs Canadians $14.6 billion annually
  • 19.1% of Canadians aged 12+ reported heavy drinking at least once per month in the previous year


According to HealthLink BC, the below guidelines ensure low-risk drinking in Canadian adults:

Gender Daily Consumption Weekly Consumption
Male <3 standard drinks* <15 drinks
Female <2 standard drinks* <10 drinks

* 1 standard drink = 14g of pure alcohol (12oz beer, 5oz wine, 1.5oz spirits)

When someone drinks too much alcohol in a short space of time, they are at risk of alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning occurs when alcohol floods the bloodstream and affects the parts of the brain responsible for vital functions such as breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. 

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  1. Confusion
  2. Vomiting
  3. Seizures
  4. Slow breathing
  5. Irregular breathing
  6. Blue-tinged skin
  7. Hypothermia
  8. Loss of consciousness


If the person does not receive medical attention on time, they can die.

4 Reasons For Substance Abuse

It’s very unlikely that a person experimenting with substances for the first time intends to abuse them or develop a harmful addiction. 

People use substances like alcohol or drugs recreationally to:

  • Relax
  • Enjoy a party
  • Experiment with out-of-body sensations
  • Have a mind-altering experience
  • Cope or have relief from external stressors


However, for some people, using substances can become harmful and lead to an addiction. 

In order to ensure that you or someone you care about doesn’t fall into substance abuse or addiction, it’s important to understand the potential causes or triggers of substance abuse.

We’ll examine 4 key reasons for substance abuse:

  1. Depression & mental illness
  2. Trauma
  3. Stress
  4. Social pressures


It’s important to understand that these reasons for substance abuse can affect anybody, regardless of their income, ethnicity, status, gender, or sexual orientation.

1. Depression & Mental Illness


In Canada, 1 in 5 people will experience mental illness in any given year.

Tragically, mental illness and substance abuse go hand-in-hand. If someone is struggling to cope with their mental health, and they have nowhere to turn for emotional support and therapy, they are highly likely to turn to substances.

Substance abuse as a result of mental illness can manifest in many ways. Someone in a social group may use drugs openly and confidently without raising concern about their crippling depression that they hide behind closed doors.

But, generally, people who are suffering from their mental health abuse drugs because they are:

  • Self-medicating: they take drugs to lessen the impact of their harmful thoughts or mental illness symptoms
  • Self-harming: they have suicidal intentions

Mental illness is a growing problem in our society. Although the stigma around depression and other mental health issues has been slowly broken down in recent years, many people still suffer in silence and internalize their problems rather than seeking help or therapy.

2. Trauma

Psychological trauma can happen to anyone regardless of their age, occupation, or life experience.

There is a major link between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, with a wealth of statistics demonstrating the likelihood that someone who abuses substances has experienced a traumatic event or suffers from PTSD.

People who are suffering from trauma will often abuse substances to self-medicate or ‘escape’ from their painful reality.  A traumatized person might choose a certain substance because might dull down painful memories, hallucinations, feelings of anger and helplessness, and other symptoms of PTSD that haven’t been addressed through counselling.

Treating victims of both trauma and substance abuse can be particularly challenging. An adult who uses drugs problematically might be suffering, unknowingly, from a trauma that they experienced in childhood.

3. Stress

Stress is a normal human response that helps us make deadlines, arrive on time, and prepare for a presentation.

Although a small amount of stress is perfectly normal, even healthy, excess stress has a detrimental impact on our health, wellbeing, and even our longevity.

Canadians experiencing high-stress environments are more susceptible to drug abuse as a coping mechanism. Scenarios include:

  • Working in a demanding or high-pressure environment
  • Exposure to dangerous people or situations
  • Studying for examinations that will have a huge impact on the future
  • Financial stressors such as debt and unemployment


When left unchecked, chronic stress can cause people to develop mental health issues and medical problems. 

It’s important to remember that our perception of, tolerance for, and response to stress varies greatly from person to person.

4. Social Pressures

social pressure

Most people have experienced peer pressure, especially when they were young. Young people are far more susceptible to the pressure to conform and be accepted, from middle school through to college.

Social pressure plays a huge role in everyday decisions and habits. The pressure to conform and be validated by others can be a positive thing for people. We might be encouraged to go out of our comfort zone, try something new, and enjoy a new experience, which helps us develop new skills and make new friends.

However, peer pressure can push people to do things and make judgments that they usually wouldn’t. This is problematic if someone socializes with a group where it’s accepted and celebrated to use substances dangerously.

Because youth are most at-risk of peer pressure, it’s important for parents, teachers, and support personnel to help young people with:

  • Learning how to communicate and set boundaries with friends – say ‘no’ comfortably, respond to pressure, suggest alternative activities
  • Choosing friendship groups that don’t engage with substance abuse and respect  individual choices
  • Understanding what substance abuse is and why it’s dangerous


In cases where family intervention is required, both the victim and their family are included in the treatment process and provided with support and resources to help with recovery.

What Are The Signs & Symptoms of Substance Abuse?

It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of substance abuse so that you can help a loved one, friend, or even yourself if you feel like substance use is becoming a problem.

Specific physical and behavioural signs of substance abuse and intoxication vary depending on the substance. However, there are general symptoms signalling that someone is abusing substances.

Physical Signs

Watch out for:

  • Inability to sleep; either insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Unusual smells on the breath or body
  • Deterioration in physical health
  • Poor coordination
  • Perspiration
  • Paleness
  • Extreme hyperactivity and talkativeness

Behavioural Signs

Pay attention to:

  • Change in overall personality and attitude
  • Lack of interest in activities, sports, or hobbies they would usually enjoy
  • Drop in performance at work or in class
  • Oversensitivity
  • Paranoia
  • Unexplained need for money
  • Moodiness
  • Drop in communication, offline for days at a time
  • Changes in friendship groups

Intoxication Signs

Substance Symptoms of Intoxication
Cocaine Euphoria, weight loss, lack of sleep and eating, depressive episodes
Ecstasy Dilated pupils, emotional behaviour, teeth clenching, grinding jaw, thirst
Methamphetamine Hyperactivity, twitching, agitation, mood swings, outbursts, rotting teeth
Heroin Needle marks, unusual sleeping patterns, vomiting, sweating
Alcohol Clumsiness, inability to walk, slurred speech, smell like alcohol
Prescription Opioids Drowsiness, confusion, euphoria, slowed breathing
Prescription Stimulants Increased heart rate, anxiety, appetite loss
Prescription Sedatives Impaired motor functions, muscle spasms, hallucinations


When To Call 911

If you are concerned that you or someone you know has abused a substance and is overdosing, you need to call 911.

There are 4 signs of a drug overdose:

  1. Raised or lowered temperature, blood pressure, and breathing
  2. Extreme pain in abdomen, muscles, joints
  3. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  4. Loss of consciousness


Symptoms of alcohol poisoning:

  • Pale skin
  • Vomiting
  • Irregular breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Low body temperature


If you see any of these signs, call emergency services. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Overcome Substance Abuse: Available Solutions

Substance abuse causes immense harm not only to the individual but to their loved ones. 

However, overcoming substance abuse is possible and there are many available solutions that can help address this issue and offer therapy and future support.

Counselling & Therapy

counselling & therapy

Therapists, counsellors, and psychologists who specialize in substance abuse can help to treat the underlying problems that caused an individual to use substances dangerously.

One of the most helpful types of therapy for substance abuse is cognitive-behavioural therapy, which helps a person understand and address the underlying beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that cause them to behave in harmful ways. 


Interventions should be considered when the person who is abusing substances is unable or unwilling to stop.

An intervention, when facilitated by a professional with support from loved ones, is a strategy designed to assist the person abusing substances to both seek help and commit to recovery.

Professional drug and alcohol interventions like those offered by Andy Bhatti, will:

  • Provide in-depth consultations with the family
  • Tailor a plan around the needs and interests of the individual
  • Show sensitivity to cultural norms and practices
  • Include recovery coaching, crime prevention, family therapy programs, and abuse counselling

Treatment Centers

Finding a treatment center for substance abuse is a powerful step towards full recovery. A treatment center is a private, dedicated, and complete approach to treatment that includes accommodation, therapy, coaching, and monitoring to help a person recover completely from substance abuse and addiction.

Choosing the right treatment center depends on many factors, so it’s important to take your time and discuss your options with a professional to make the right choice.

Alternative Solutions

Alternative solutions to substance abuse include:

  • Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness-based therapies
  • Equine therapy
  • Art therapy
  • Adventure therapy


Despite the increase in popularity of these treatments, there is still much research to be taken to prove their effectiveness. 

Conclusion: Help Yourself Or Your Loved One Recover From Substance Abuse Today

By understanding the underlying causes, signs, and symptoms of substance abuse, you can support a loved one to commit to recovery and live a happier, healthier life,

Substance abuse is a nationwide problem, with some cases of substance abuse continuing to worsen, especially for at-risk groups. 

To solve the problem, it’s important to break the stigma around substance use and create an environment where people can seek help and commit to recovery.

For more information about treatments for substance abuse in Canada, talk to us today.