Physical distancing measures have been an important tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19. These measures, however, are having dire implications on people who use substances – a population that is seeing record number deaths from drug overdose in the last year. Media attention of the overdose crisis has focused on adults, even though in 2019, 20% of opioid-related deaths were in youth and young adults.
Youth are in a particularly precarious situation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Developmentally, adolescence is characterized by increased social interaction and engagement with peers. During the pandemic, youth are being asked to spend more time at home and are losing the typical experiences of school and extracurriculars. This shift may have significant impacts on youth mental health, and may be a contributing factor to an increase in substance misuse.
In 2020, Saskatchewan (and much of the country) had a record-setting year for drug toxicities and overdose. Saskatoon’s Police Chief Clive Weighill has said that the COVID-19 pandemic and the loneliness and isolation that comes from it is contributing to these numbers. There is a need for services to adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis but a shift and improvement of the system overall is needed beyond.
The Canadian Association of Mental Health says that there is a powerful tool in combating mental health and substance use in youth and that is through using the voices of youth themselves. Dr. Henderson, Director of the McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health, says that “it is time youth with lived experience are recognized for the expertise and leadership they can bring to mental health research and to service planning.”