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Fewer young people required hospital admission for substance-use problems in 2022 compared with the prior year, but rates are still above prepandemic levels, according to a new report.

Substance-use issues accounted for more than 21,000 admissions among 10- to 24-year-olds last year, representing a 10 per cent decrease, data released Thursday by the Canadian Institute for Health Information showed.

Cannabis was the cause of about 40 per cent, more than any other substance, CIHI reported. Alcohol was a factor in about 25 per cent; stimulants were involved in 20 per cent; and opioids were present in 10 per cent.

Karen Leslie, a staff pediatrician in the adolescent medicine division at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, said many people underestimate the damaging effects cannabis can have, especially when it is used regularly by children and teens, whose brains are still developing. She’s concerned that young people frequently use cannabis without understanding it can have harmful effects on many aspects of their health.

“Cannabis and other substances can result in more mental health issues,” Dr. Leslie said.

For instance, evidence shows that teenagers who frequently use cannabis are at higher risk for psychosis. Chronic use is also linked to cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, which can cause severe nausea and vomiting.

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One of the challenges is that young people, like adults, may turn to cannabis and other substances to cope with mental health challenges, especially given the long wait times for help. According to CIHI, 70 per cent of young patients admitted for a substance-use problem last year had an anxiety, mood, psychotic or other mental health disorder.

The CIHI report also found that children and teenagers had to wait 36 days on average for publicly funded community mental health supports and counselling in 2022, up from 27 days in 2020. They wait a week longer than adults, the report said.

Dr. Leslie, while acknowledging the challenges of long wait times, added there may be ways to better connect young people who show up at the hospital or emergency room for substance-use issues with help. For instance, if a patient is treated for alcohol poisoning, they could be automatically flagged as an individual who needs follow-up assessment and care when they are sent home after recovery.

While opioid use only accounted for 10 per cent of the hospital admissions, Dr. Leslie said she and her colleagues across the country are noticing an alarming uptick in fentanyl use and overdoses among young people.

“We need to be really looking at that.”

Earlier this year, a report from the BC Centre for Disease Control found that, for the first time, fatal overdoses from opioids and other illicit substances are now the leading cause of death for individuals aged 10 to 18 in British Columbia.

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