The opioid crisis in Canadian university students

(Photo Courtesy of Hennie Stander, Unsplash)

Following a year of the pandemic, Toronto Public Health has released data showing that opioid overdose deaths have risen by 78 per cent from 2019 to 2020. 

These numbers are continuing to climb in 2021. 

Universities are now teaching opioid safety across campuses in hopes that students will have the tools to protect themselves. 

Lori Walls, director of student counselling & development, states that York is “committed to cultivating an environment free of substance use and misuse.” 

Walls goes on to say that opioids help when prescribed properly, but their strong nature often leads to abuse. “Inappropriate use and illegal distribution of opioids has led to a crisis in society that is prevalent in young, university-aged people.”

Walls touches on a Government of Canada report that details the rising opioid numbers for 2021, which shows that 18 per cent of opioid toxicity deaths were young adults aged 20 to 29, with the same age range counting for 26 per cent of opioid emergency medical services related calls.

“This reality means that York has an important responsibility to ensure our students are kept aware of the dangers of abusing these drugs,” says Walls.

“Because of the severe potential harms of opioids, we are worried about young people,” says Dr. Leslie Buckley, chief of addictions at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). “Harmful substances such as fentanyl can find their way into the street drug supply, and this may be unexpected by the user — and potentially fatal.” 

Dr. Buckley notes that “mental health, stress, and good information about the risks of particular substances” are significant factors for young people to remember considering the risk of harm from substance abuse. 

In response to the rising overdose numbers, the City of Toronto opened their first safe consumption site in 2017, with nine sites now existing throughout the city. These sites “provide a safe, clean space for people to bring their own drugs to use in the presence of trained staff,” the Government of Canada writes on their Supervised consumption sites and services: Explained web page. 

In addition to these sites, activists are now calling on opioid decriminalization measures to be taken by the City of Toronto to further protect those struggling with addiction.

A Toronto Public Health representative says there is work “currently underway and the decriminalization submission to Health Canada is not yet finalized.”

They say that as of June 14, the Toronto Public Health staff was asked to “convene a multi-sectoral working group to provide advice on developing a health- and social equity-based alternative approach to drug criminalization, as a step towards requesting an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.” 

Dr. Buckley states that going forward, all levels of government must play a role in addressing the opioid overdose crisis.

“The federal government can decriminalize the personal possession and use of illegal drugs and continue funding harm reduction services. Provincial governments can ensure evidence-based treatment and harm reduction interventions are readily available. Both federal and provincial governments can work with municipalities to address social determinants of health like housing.” 

On a local level, Walls says that York offers a variety of programming and plans to expand these programs for the coming holiday season.

“Students may be discussing substance use, misuse, and abuse challenging — our goal, then, is to reduce stigma and recognize the impact substance use can have on physical and mental health, academics, and relationships. Our educational efforts strive to de-stigmatize conversations regarding alcohol and other drugs by providing information on resources, programs, and policies.”

About the Author

By Sarah Garofalo

Former Editor

Sarah is in her fourth year of Film Studies at York University. She is passionate about using writing as a tool to educate herself and introduce others to hidden stories and new ideas. In the future, she hopes to continue her studies in film and merge it with her love of writing and journalism. You can always find Sarah sketching, painting or endlessly watching films while waiting to get back into movie theatres.


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