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Youth and Alcohol: Issues and Resources

Lisa dedicates her life to studying the behaviours of others. She is currently completing her BA in Psychology and Gender & Women's Studies.

Alcohol, although thoroughly researched, remains extremely misunderstood with respect to substance stigmatization. Alcohol is not commonly viewed as a “dangerous drug” in the way that other substances are, primarily due to its legal status and that it is acceptably a part of many social functions. While alcohol has the potential to be consumed responsibly, the adverse acute and chronic effects can be deeply tragic. Due to the open availability and high rates of consumption of alcohol, youth have a considerable chance of being exposed to alcohol in one form or another, whether it be through their parent(s)’ consumption or from popular culture references. Recreational substance use of any kind during adolescence is particularly risky, as the brain and body are in the midst of one of their most critical stages of development.

Alcohol consumption among underage individuals is one issue, but the upper range of ages to still be considered “youth” are legally able to purchase alcoholic beverages essentially anywhere in the world. Raising the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) is not necessarily the solution to this issue, but rather for educational resources and professional or peer support materials to be made easily available for people of all identities. Here, I am choosing to focus specifically on the youth population as I believe adolescent alcohol consumption to be particularly detrimental to an abundance of different factors. Exploring the circumstances and epidemiological patterns are crucial for the treatment and prevention of youth who are living with problematic alcohol use.

Two women talking while holding drinking glasses

Two women talking while holding drinking glasses

The Prevalence of Alcohol Consumption within Canadian Youth

“Youth” can be somewhat of an unclear term; certain people have a certain understanding of which ages can be coined as a part of the youth age group. For the sake of this article, “youth” will be defined in line with my personal understanding, being that of the age group between childhood and adulthood, or 15 – 24 years of age. According to Keller & Vaillant (2019), alcohol abuse can be defined as “excessive and repetitive drinking of alcoholic beverages to the extent that the drinker repeatedly is harmed or harms others. The harm may be physical or mental; it may also be social, legal, or economic.” I personally relish this definition as it expands beyond observable behaviours of someone abusing alcohol (such as definitions which leave it at “compulsive behaviour with alcohol” or something of the alike), encouraging the understanding and recognition of biopsychosocial/cultural/spiritual (BPS+) effects.

In 2015, $21.3 billion worth of alcoholic beverages (~240 million litres of absolute alcohol) were sold within Canadian businesses (Hart et al., 2019). The Canadian stereotype that we, as a nation, love beer is seemingly true – it is the number one choice in the country when it comes to alcoholic beverages (both in terms of volume sold and sales), and Canada ranks 24th globally in per capita beer consumption (Hart et al., 2019). While this itself is not inherently harmful, in 2013, the average 78 litres of beer consumed per Canadian over the course of a year (2.3 billion litres) includes participant data from individuals as young as 15 years of age, acknowledging the illegal sale to underaged youth (Hart et al., 2019). This has the potential to oppose the raising of the MLDA, as individuals continue to gain access to the consumption of alcohol regardless of the age restrictions. My speculation is that raising the MLDA will only induce a greater motivation to obtain alcohol as it may cause certain individuals to feel a threat to their freedoms, known as psychological reactance (Steindl et al., 2015).

The average age of initiation of alcohol use is as young as 13, and is the most commonly tried substance among Canadian high school students (Drug Free Kids Canada, 2019). According to the 2016 – 2017 Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey, over 44% of grade 7 – 12 and 64.5% of grade 10 – 12 students had consumed alcohol within the past year, and nearly 25% of grade 7 – 12 students and 40% of grade 10 – 12 students showed high-risk drinking behaviour (Drug Free Kids Canada, 2019). Similarly, the Canadian Community Health Survey, reported by Hart et al. (2019), stated that nearly 17% of Canadians aged 12 years and above were heavy drinkers, stating their potential for increased long-term health risks, notably:

Cognitive

  • Decision-making and memory problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Brain damage
  • Stroke
  • Other mental health concerns

Physiological

  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Pancreatitis
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Hepatitis
  • Cirrhosis
  • Fertility issues
  • Cancer
  • Complications of the skin, muscles, hormones, immune system, stress system

While this is serious enough as it is, Butt et al. (2011) notes that youth drinking patterns are actually above those of their adult counterparts: 25% of youth drinkers versus 17.6% of adult drinkers surmounted the guideline with respect to chronic risk, and 17.9% of youth and 11.9% of adults surmounted the guideline with respect to acute risk. These data are thought-provoking as chronic alcohol use is not generally associated with youth. People tend to associate acutely heavy drinking with young adults and teenagers due to “party culture” or the “young and free” lifestyle. This brings to the forefront how easily issues regarding substance use are misconstrued by lack of critical analysis regarding BPS+ aspects. This unfortunately is one of the contributors to alcohol-related deaths; between 2009 and 2011, over 200 people, some as young as 15 years old, succumbed to alcohol poisoning (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2016). While not all of those 200 people are considered to be youth, it is important to realize that adolescent drinking practices are significant indicators of future drinking patterns and their consequences in adulthood (Drug Free Kids Canada, 2019).


Woman wears black jacket while surrounded by peers

Woman wears black jacket while surrounded by peers

Youthhood is a developmental period of many biopsychosocial changes, such as puberty or more societal/social freedom. Since most youth have not yet reached full physical development, their body weight will likely be lower than it will be when they reach adulthood. Thus, a lower body weight means less alcohol is required to raise one’s blood-alcohol concentration (BAC). For example, if a 45kg female consumes 2 standard drinks within 1 hour, her BAC will be ~.09% (Hart et al., 2019). If a 90kg female did the exact same, her BAC will only be ~.045% (Hart et al., 2019). These BAC levels are in their own divisions of severity of impaired behaviours, indicating that youth, in a way, have an increased risk of overdose.

One of the most prolific changes during youth is their “raging sex hormones”, as it is frequently termed. Sex drives begin to spike, especially in males, and being under the influence of alcohol at this time can precipitate unfortunate situations. When men believe a woman has had alcohol, they perceive her to be more sexually interested and sexually approachable; a similar effect has been observed for women’s opinions of men who have consumed alcohol (Hart et al., 2019). In terms of unsafe sex, both men and women given alcohol in laboratory circumstances report an increased readiness to participate in unprotected sex and a greater acceptance of excuses for not using condoms (Hart et al., 2019). Numerous behavioural effects of alcohol on sexual practices are consistent with the alcohol myopia theory: alcohol inhibits information processing in such a manner that individuals are more prone to focus on what is immediately in front of them, ignoring future consequences (Hart et al., 2019). So, in a challenging sexual setting, an intoxicated individual is more likely to want instant fulfillment and is less likely to be deterred by worries about unknown or delayed results.

A popular rite of passage is obtaining a driver’s license at the age of 16 which, according to the above statistics, is at a time when the individual has likely consumed alcohol. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) revealed that 15.3% of students surveyed have been a passenger in a car of an intoxicated driver (MADD Canada, 2016), meaning that the driver had a BAC of .08% or above. The probability of being involved in a fatal car crash while driving with a BAC over .08% is 3 times greater than if the driver is sober; yet for youth in the same situation, the probability is 5 times as great (Hart et al., 2019). Statistics Canada (2016) issued data which pertain to 3 different youth age groups and their rates of accused impaired driving (per 100 000 licensed drivers) in both 2009 and 2015:

youth-and-alcohol-issues-and-resources

It is favourable that the rates have decreased during the 6-year gap for all age groups, although it is almost unfathomable, personally, to think that people younger than 16-years-old are driving while under the influence. Though it is supported by the reality of vehicular accidents being the leading cause of death among 16 – 25-year-olds, where over half of said crashes involve impaired driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol (Drug Free Kids Canada, 2019).

Cognitive changes also occur during adolescence, one being a spike in risky behaviour. It is not objectively known what causes this, but it is speculated that it could be due to prioritizing the excitement of risk-taking over possible consequences, or that teenagers are less bothered by losses and more so affected by reward (McMahan & Thompson, 2015). Correspondingly, some of the methods that youth in particular partake in to ingest alcohol can be quite detrimental. Vodka being poured over an open eyeball or inserting vodka-soaked tampons into the vagina or rectum are only 2 examples of methods used which have the potential to cause pain, impair mucosal tissue, or jeopardize inner antimicrobial environments (Hart et al., 2019).

Canadian Organizations in Support of Youth with Problematic Alcohol Use

The Dan Snook Trust Foundation (Dan's Legacy)

The Dan Snook Trust Foundation (n.d.), also called Dan’s Legacy, is a program in Westminster, British Columbia that delivers counselling services which focus specifically on youth who have experienced trauma by providing “insight and empowerment [so that at risk youth] have the opportunity to achieve their full potential and contribute to their community.” The name of this organization is representative of its history, though sorrowful. Dan’s Legacy was established in remembrance of a young man who self-medicated with heavy drugs during adolescence after having experienced sexual abuse (The Dan Snook Trust Foundation, n.d.). He got assistance from rehabilitation programs twice but lacked access to critical one-on-one counselling, leading to Dan’s relapse, overdose, and death; he was only 19 years old (The Dan Snook Trust Foundation, n.d.). Dan’s Legacy has 19 separate organizations that help to fund their program, including those such as Bell Let’s Talk and the Canadian Medical Association (The Dan Snook Trust Foundation, n.d.).

Venture Academy

Venture Academy (n.d.) is an organization with 3 different locations (Barrie, Ontario; Red Deer, Alberta; Kelowna, British Columbia) whose purpose is “to assist youth to make and sustain positive behavioural change.” Venture Academy (n.d.) offers different approaches to individualized and familial treatment and specializes in 7 different methods, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT). Established in 2001, Venture Academy (n.d.) has evolved over the past 20 years to offer adolescents evaluation, counselling, private education, homestay, and other supportive treatment options.

Pine River Institute

Pine River Institute (n.d.) is a Toronto-based organization with multiple rehabilitation campuses within Dufferin County that values virtues such as accountability and resilience. Their primary focus is helping adolescents who are dealing with addiction, although they also consider other mental health concerns as well (Pine River Institute, n.d.). By utilizing a family-based approach, Pine River Institute helps to turn youth in the right direction via research and assessment, gradual growth, and open communication (Pine River Institute, n.d.). Established in 2001, Pine River Institute started out as a group of volunteers who were passionate about making mental health services more available for youth and their families, which has now developed into Canada’s “most comprehensive residential treatment program” (Pine River Institute, n.d.). In 2008, on a trial basis, the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care funded the program by providing up to a total of 23 beds; 3 years later this funding became permanent (Pine River Institute, n.d.). Pine River Institute (n.d.) receives grants from various donors, and as of this year the Government of Ontario announced that they will support the installation of 30 more beds.

A Further Examination

Pine River Institute (n.d.) is a member of the Central Ontario Health Team (OHT) for Specialized Populations, and has the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) and Addictions and Mental Health Ontario (AMHO) as their partners. They are associated with 4 Canadian universities (York University, University of Toronto, University of Victoria, Trent University) to aid in applicable research and knowledge pertaining to topics such as effects of treatment and causes for program dropout (Pine River Institute, n.d.).

Pine River Institute has been publishing an annual evaluation report since 2014, showcasing different program characteristics (Mills & Bingley, 2021). I think that this is a very dedicative practice as it provides a succinct yet detailed examination of their policies and success from former admitted youth, allowing families to feel confident about their child’s wellbeing while they are away. 2020’s evaluation report provides many positive statistics: 58% of patients used substance(s) daily before admittance and only 12% did after discharge, and 37% were not attending secondary school prior to admittance and 90% were following completion of the program (Mills & Bingley, 2021). Pine River Institute (n.d.) states 5 specific areas of interest that they use for both research and treatment purposes: mental health, behaviours, relationships, therapeutic processes, and parenting factors, encouraging the BPS+ mentality within their services. They have published 10 academic papers, ranging from topics such as the importance of healthy family models to how youth view their own identities (Pine River Institute, n.d.).

Pine River Institute (n.d.) is active on several different social media sites, which is favourable as youth are one of the biggest demographics of social media users. They also offer free webinars to provide skills and techniques for promoting emotional wellness (Pine River Institute, n.d.). With respect to inclusivity and accessibility, Pine River Institute (n.d.) states that they are “committed to treating all people in a way that allows them to maintain their dignity and independence” and that they “believe in integration and equal opportunity. [They] are committed to meeting the needs of people with disabilities in a timely manner and will do so by preventing and removing barriers to accessibility and meeting accessibility requirements under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).”

The most noticeable areas of Pine River Institute that could use improvement are the wait times for admittance, and the rate of program completion. Granting that wait times for health services are long in Ontario in general, Pine River Institute’s average wait time in 2020 was 455 days (Mills & Bingley, 2021), whereas the average wait time to see a therapist in Ontario in 2020 was only ~65 days (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2020). Albeit Pine River Institute offers a much more comprehensive approach, it is taxing that the wait time is 7 times longer than it is to see solely a therapist. To my surprise, only 56% of patients complete the program (Mills & Bingley, 2021). While this is still a somewhat productive outcome, it is disheartening that almost half of the patients drop out of the program. I believe that it would also be beneficial for Pine River Institute to offer outpatient options as well. Adolescents frequently seek approval and acceptance from their peers (McMahan & Thompson, 2015), so staying away from home due to a highly stigmatized issue could easily make many youth hesitant to partake in the program.

Group of women in forest drinking

Group of women in forest drinking

Concluding Remarks

The prevalence portion while writing this was interesting, but it was quite eye-opening when looking for applicable organizations. Although I did not struggle with addiction while a teenager, I did deal with other mental health concerns, and it was very difficult to know where to turn to or how. Current issues in mental health are certainly still stigmatized, but I believe there has been substantial progress within the past decade or so with respect to accessibility and awareness of services. Prior to writing this, I already had an understanding of the consequences of problematic alcohol use as well as the psychological development of adolescents, but having to analyze both aspects together was insightful yet bothersome. The inconspicuous dangers of alcohol to laymen tend to remain unacknowledged, which is only one out of many factors that contribute to alcohol abuse in youth. It is crucial for guardians to practice healthy parenting and provide support for their children to aid in the prevention of distressed youth partaking in unhealthy coping mechanisms. Ultimately, prevention is more fitting than treatment.

References

Butt, P., Beirness, D., Stockwell, T., Gliksman, L., & Paradis, C. (2011). Alcohol and health in Canada: A summary of evidence and guidelines for low-risk drinking. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. https://www.uvic.ca/research/centres/cisur/assets/docs/report-alcohol-and-health-in-canada.pdf

Canadian Mental Health Association. (2020, January 7). Wait times for youth mental health services in Ontario at all-time high. Canadian Mental Health Association: Ontario. https://ontario.cmha.ca/news/wait-times-for-youth-mental-health-services-in-ontario-at-all-time-high/#:~:text=Average%20wait%20time%20is%2067

Dan Snook Trust Foundation. (n.d.). Transforming and enriching lives of troubled youth. Dan’s Legacy. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://danslegacy.com/

Drug Free Kids Canada. (2019). Youth and alcohol. https://www.drugfreekidscanada.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/DFK_Info_YouthAlcohol_FINAL.pdf

Hart, C., Ksir, C., Hebb, A., & Gilbert, R. (2019). Alcohol. In Drugs, Behaviour and Society (3rd ed., pp. 209–246). McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

Keller, M., & Vaillant, G. E. (2019). Alcoholism. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/alcoholism

MADD Canada. (2016). 2016-2017 school assembly program educators guide: In the blink of an eye. https://madd.ca/pages/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Educators-Guide-Gr-7-8-Blink-of-an-Eye-Final-1.pdf

McMahan, I., & Thompson, S. (2015). Cognitive changes. In Adolescence: Canadian Edition (pp. 74–107). Pearson Canada Inc.

Mills, L., & Bingley, J. (2021). Pine river institute: 2020 annual evaluation report. https://online.anyflip.com/paiza/skfg/mobile/index.html

Pine River Institute. (n.d.). Pine River Institute. Pine River Institute. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://pineriverinstitute.com/

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2016). The chief public health officer’s report on the state of public health in Canada 2015: Alcohol consumption in Canada. https://healthycanadians.gc.ca/publications/department-ministere/state-public-health-alcohol-2015-etat-sante-publique-alcool/alt/state-phac-alcohol-2015-etat-aspc-alcool-eng.pdf

Statistics Canada. (2016, December 14). Impaired driving accused, by age group, Canada, 2009 and 2015. Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/161214/cg-b002-png-eng.htm

Steindl, C., Jonas, E., Sittenthaler, S., Traut-Mattausch, E., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Understanding psychological reactance. Zeitschrift Für Psychologie, 223(4), 205–214. https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000222

Venture Academy. (n.d.). Canada’s Leading Program for Troubled Teens. Venture Academy. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.ventureacademy.ca/

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Lisa Hallam

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