Substance Abuse and International Students

Adolescence is a high-risk age group for alcohol and drug abuse. Internationally, rates vary depending on drug and alcohol accessibility, social norms, and religious customs. For example, rates of adolescent alcohol use are highest in the Americas and European regions, whereas they are low in Middle Eastern countries where alcohol is prohibited and not easy to locate. Even within a region, drug use can vary considerably. In Africa, prevalence of lifetime drug use in 13- to 15-year-olds varies from under 5% to over 30% (requires Adobe Reader), depending on the country. Therefore, it is difficult for teachers of international students to determine how much exposure they have had to drugs or alcohol. The rate of drug use in the past year in Canadian youth (ages 15–24), however, is about 5–23% depending on the drug, with cannabis and prescription drugs being the most frequently used. So students coming to Canada to study may be faced with the challenges of easy access and peer pressure. If you notice a student may be struggling with a substance or alcohol use problem, it is important to do what you can before the situation gets worse.

  1. Don’t lose your coolIf you suspect a student or homestay child is indulging in drugs or alcohol, don’t panic! Kids can be curious and rebellious. Most often, they will experiment with a drug and then stop. However, considering addiction can arise from this use, it is important to maintain a level head. Issues around substance abuse can be quite complex and often include family and peer dynamics, behavioural disorders in the student, accessing treatment, and logistics around treatment. Panicking can cause you to act in an irrational way which will result in a situation that is not helpful for either of you.
  2. Get to know what they know about drugsLectures are for the classroom. In a relaxed setting, discuss opinions on and knowledge of alcohol and various drugs that are abused—especially the risks they carry. Students from other countries may not be as familiar with the common drugs of abuse in Canada, such as cannabis (a.k.a. marijuana). Use this as an opportunity to develop a rapport with the student or homestay child. Having a relationship based on respect and understanding will mean they are open to any information you need to give them.
  3. Understand there may be an underlying issueThere are various risk factors for addiction. One of the biggest risk factors is genetics. If there is an addict in the family, the child will be at a higher risk of addiction. There may also be some trauma the student has experienced, or difficulties at home that are predisposing them to want to “self-medicate.” Students may also want simply to fit in, and may be under a lot of peer pressure to use a drug or drink alcohol. This can be especially problematic for students trying to balance a desire to fit into a new country with customs in their home country that list alcohol as a no-no.
  4. Don’t be negative or overly criticalTelling a person what is wrong with them is not motivating. It often has the opposite effect and makes a person feel demoralized and ineffectual. It is important to use statements of encouragement when communicating any disappointment in drug behaviours (e.g., “I support you,” “you are a strong person,” etc.). Be sensitive to whatever they may be going through, and position yourself as a support system—not a judge.
  5. Get to know the programs and treatments available, but be realisticIf and when the time is right to discuss support or treatment, it would be good to first have an idea of what is out there. Are there local treatment centres near you? What about support groups? There are psychologists and psychiatrists that specialize in addiction, so having a few names ready would also be handy. However, not everyone is ready for, or wants, help. You cannot force someone to acknowledge a drug abuse problem much more than you can force a person into treatment.
  6. Build a collaborative teamIf you are sure of a substance abuse problem, it may be time to talk to the parents. For effective resolution, it is important for everyone to be on the same page, although this will not always be possible. Parents may blame homestay guardians or teachers for too much leniency and not enough oversight. Or they may want the child to be sent back home. If there is an existing conflict between parents and student (e.g., not getting along, resentment, abuse), it can be particularly difficult to come to a solution you all agree with. So tread carefully and seek out additional support from school counsellors or addiction specialists on how to manage the situation.

Substance abuse is an issue that should not be ignored. Educate, encourage, and engage in order to help a student from going down the wrong path!


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Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse
Drug Rehab Services


(Last reviewed December 31, 2013)

  1. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2004). Biological factors. Retrieved from
  2. Government of Canada. (2013). Drug facts. Retrieved from
  3. Health Canada. (2011). Drug and alcohol use statistics. Retrieved from
  4. (2013). What is addiction? Retrieved from
  5. School Family. (2013). 10 ways to help your child deal with peer pressure. Retrieved from
  6. World Health Organization. (n.d.). Psychoactive substance use among adolescents in the WHO African region. Retrieved from

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