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Project step supports youth in the face of spike in poor mental health


Authored by:

Trisha Islam 
Director, Community Initiatives, All That Kids Can Be, United Way East Ontario – member of project step 

Benjamin Leikin 
Program Manager: Mental Health, Addictions and Substance Use Health Unit, Ottawa Public Health – member of project step 

Manon Séguin 
Program Consultant: Mental Health and Problematic Substance Use, Ottawa Network for Education – member of project step 

Dr. Richard Bolduc 
Mental Health and Well-Being Lead, Ottawa Catholic School Board – member of project step 

Emily Balla 
Mental Health Lead, Ottawa Carleton District School Board – member of project step 

Peter Embleton 
Executive Director, Youville Centre – member of project step 

John Heckbert 
Executive Director, Operation Come Home – member of project step 

Rachel Gouin 
Executive Director, Centre Le CAP – member of project step 

Johanne Levesque 
Executive Director, Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services – member of project step 

Hayley Robateau 
Director, Marketing and Communications, Community Initiatives, United Way East Ontario – member of project step 

Youth in our region are fiercely resilient, but at what cost?  

Over the past three years, they navigated deep disruptions to their lives in ways unexperienced by previous generations. This is why we were alarmed but not surprised to see the recent data about mental health, addictions, and substance use health among Ottawa students: in 2021, 44 per cent – nearly half – of students in Ottawa reported fair or poor mental health.  

This is more than twice as many students compared to 2019, before the pandemic started. 

Read the full Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey Findings for Ottawa.

Read the report

On February 22, 2023, Ottawa Public Health released local analysis of the 2021 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS). This edition of the survey, which is conducted every two years among thousands of students, is the first time current and reliable information about the health risk behaviours, attitudes and beliefs of Ottawa teenagers has been released since the start of COVID-19.

Here are some important takeaways from the survey data:

  • Percentages can be deceiving. 44 per cent of Ottawa students is equivalent to thousands of individual young people who deserve to be healthy and thriving.

  • Poor mental health and wellbeing, thoughts about attempting suicide, and self-harm behaviours were more prevalent among young people who are already marginalized: those with a lower socioeconomic status, and those who identify as 2SLGBTQ+.

  • While poor mental health on its own is troubling, the data also shows that some students are using drugs and alcohol to cope with their struggles, and many don’t know where to turn for help.

  • Drug use starts early for many young people. Grade 7-8 students were just as likely to report non-medical opioid use as those in grades 9-12 (10%).

Simply put, the pandemic has been hard on youth.

The community response

The OSDUHS survey data reminds us that we can’t expect young people to be endlessly resilient when crisis after crisis affects their wellbeing.

We’re fortunate that here in Ottawa, project step is leading the way in building a brighter future for youth who are struggling, and their families. Project step is a community-wide initiative to ensure young people and their families have access to support, treatment, education, and prevention of harms related to substance and technology use.

We are proud to say that project step counsellors and resources are in every high school in Ottawa and places in the community where youth seek help.

“As a teacher and high school administrator and now as the Executive Director of Youville Centre, I have seen the impact that mental health and substance use can have on young people. Project Step helps support us in providing funds for mental health supports and counseling for substance use and problematic internet use.”

For 15 years, this community-wide partnership has been bringing together all four school boards, frontline mental health and addiction service providers, public health, and live-in treatment centres to ensure youth and their families have access to timely, culturally appropriate and evidence-based information and education. Project step also offers support and treatment to families and youth who are experiencing challenges with substance use, or addiction to technology.

When we reach young people where they are, with support tailored to their needs, we can promote resiliency and address mental health and substance use health early and often. We are carving the path to help prevent casual substance use from becoming an addiction.

Project step prevents casual substance use from becoming long-term addiction.

Learn more

“Street drugs in Ottawa are becoming increasingly dangerous and causing more harm than ever. We are proud to be part of the invaluable project step network, educating the youth we serve about potential dangers and ensuring they are able to get help.”

Addressing the problem early

Prevention is hard to measure, but project step works.

Last year, 86% of youth who accessed project step counselling in the community improved their academic or employment success, and 76% had improved mental health outcomes.

Because of project step … 

  • Youth have ready access to substance use counselling in any of the publicly funded high schools in Ottawa, and in several community agencies focused on helping young people.

  • Parents with children experiencing challenges with substance or technology use can access counselors to help them support their kids on the path to their success or recovery.

  • Teachers and school staff receive presentations and workshops to help them identify youth experiencing challenges with substance use health or addictions, and connect those students with project step.

  • Young people receive education on substance use health and mental health. They also receive information on how to support their peers and where they can turn to for help for their mental health, or if they are questioning their relationship with substance use, technology use.

Mental health and addiction organizations catering to youth are addressing real-life experiences that extend beyond the scope of this report's data. Additionally, the underrepresentation of Francophone youth in this survey means that the issues highlighted in the report are just the tip of the iceberg, as confirmed by organizations providing mental health and addiction support.”

What comes next

Like most issues, the pandemic has made substance use trends among young people even more concerning than they were in normal times. 

There is so much to do, and we can’t do it alone.

We are fortunate to have the foundation of project step in our community. With partners, we continue to look for ways we can better reach and support youth who need help, where they are. Now more than ever, we must grow and strengthen our work so young people can reach their full potential.

Join us by visiting our website and find where project step is near you.

"The work of project step is critical in addressing the stigma that continues to be a barrier for youth and families seeking the substance use and addiction treatment and services they deserve."

Where to get help

If you are a youth, guardian, service provider, or someone who cares about the mental health and substance use health of young people in Ottawa, we invite you to read and share these resources with those you know.

project step partners

Ottawa Public Health mental health resources

211 helpline




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