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Student Support Services

Umbrella Project

Module 1: Before We Get Started

This module has been designed to help faculty learn, understand, and reflect on the impact substance use has on post-secondary students and how the post-secondary culture of substance use impacts students. It is useful for any college employee interested in understanding substance use, harm reduction and how to continue to contribute to a healthier campus culture.


  • Understand that substance use happens.The transition to college provides greater opportunity for substance use, as well as greater pressure to use. Harm reduction can help reduce the negative impact.
  • Go beyond ‘just say no’ and ‘drugs are bad’.Implying that people who use alcohol and other drugs are bad people makes it more difficult to have an honest conversation about how to mitigate harm, and makes it less likely that students will reach out for help
  • Encourage students to access college services.Colleges provide many services and resources such as counselling and health services to support students when they need help.


Ongoing substance use despite negative consequences, the presence of withdrawal, and an increase in tolerance. This has become a confusing and vague term as physical dependence can be a person’s natural biological response and not indicative of compulsive, out of control substance use.

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5th Edition now has specific criteria to determine if a person has a Substance Use Disorder. The higher the number of criteria met, the more severe the disorder (Substance Use and Abuse 2016 Rick Csiernik).

Any substance that changes the way the body and brain works. This includes alcohol which is often separated from this definition.

For example we often say ‘alcohol and drugs’ when we mean ‘alcohol and other drugs’.

A word referring to a “mark” attached to people who possess any attribute, trait, or disorder that marks that person as different than “normal” person. These negative stereotypes and attitudes can lead to shame, discrimination and barriers to treatment.

Read more information from the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Drug use.

When someone uses drugs in a way they are not intended to be used, obtains them from illegitimate sources, uses more than the recommended dosage, or uses drugs to the point that it negatively affects their daily life/activities/relationships.

Substance use disorders occur when the ongoing use of alcohol and/or other drugs causes clinically and functionally significant impairment in the following four categories:

  • Impaired control: a craving or strong urge to use the substance; desire or failed attempts to cut down or control substance use.
  • Social problems: substance use causes failure to complete major tasks at work, school or home; social, work or leisure activities are given up or cut back because of substance use.
  • Risky use: substance is used in risky settings; continued use despite known problems.
  • Drug effects: higher tolerance (need for larger amounts to get effect); withdrawal symptoms (different for each substance).

Depending on the number of criteria met, Substance Use Disorders can be mild, moderate, or severe.


This module will give you a better understanding of the specific issues college and university students face and how we can support students holistically. It will also give an overview of the AC Umbrella Project.

Understanding Students and Substance Use

Watch this video or the information below to learn about substance use among college students, and why a harm reduction strategy can be more effective that the traditional ‘just say no’ approach.

Student Experiences

Substance use and substance use disorders are a complex topic. There are a lot of reasons why post-secondary students use alcohol and other drugs and we need to recognize that most will not develop long-term problems. However, while attending college, 55% of Ontario students who drank alcohol in the last 12 months reported experiencing one of the following:

  • did something they later regretted
  • forgot where they were or what they did
  • got in trouble with the police
  • had sex with someone without their consent
  • someone had sex with them without their consent
  • had unprotected sex
  • physically injured themselves or another
  • seriously considered suicide

Substance Use Peak

College students are at particular risk. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that many substance use problems reach their peak in transitional aged youth (typically defined from 18 to 24). This is where youth experience “rapid transitions into new social contexts that involve greater freedom and less social control” than experienced during high school and earlier adolescence.

New Environment

77% of the students that attend Algonquin College are under the age of 25, where all of a sudden, they have a newfound independence, greater access to alcohol and other substances, they are trying to navigate new and unfamiliar social territory, all the while being surrounded by the social norm that everybody in college uses, drinks, parties. When we take a look at all these factors, it’s easy to understand why there is an increase in the rates of substance use and abuse.

Challenging the Traditional Messages

The traditional messages about alcohol and other drugs focus on ‘drugs are bad, don’t do drugs, just say no’. Unfortunately, this doesn’t reflect the reality, and it makes it very black and white: There are good people and bad people. Good people don’t do drugs, so if you do drugs then you must be a bad person.

This makes it difficult to talk openly and honestly about how people can use drugs in a way that decreases the harms, and for people to reach out for help, because who wants to say, “I’m a bad person”?

Challenging the “abstinence is the only way to go” messaging and paving the way for healthier and more successful students requires the whole college team to help create many different levels of intervention, education, and change.

About the Umbrella Project

The AC Umbrella Project is a harm reduction initiative at Algonquin College. The focus of the project is on increasing awareness and education of how to reduce harms associated with substance use, and on supporting students who are struggling with substance use to succeed at college.

Watch this video, or read the information below to learn more about the project.

Our story

When the Mental Health Innovation Fund announced that it was looking for proposals for projects designed to improve mental health and/or addiction services in post-secondary institutions, Algonquin College saw an opportunity to provide students with caring, learning, integrity, and respect.

Teaming up with community partners Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health and Tungasuvvingat Inuit Community Centre, the college pursued the opportunity, and the project was approved for funding for two years.


The goal was to create a harm reduction framework for post-secondary institutions and the students that attend them.

The project has multiple aims:

  • decrease barriers to academic success and increase student retention and graduations
  • increase the skills, abilities, and confidence of college faculty and staff to address and support students who are struggling with substance use issues
  • enhance students' self-efficacy to self assess and seek support
  • increase college resources to assist students in reducing harms related to substance use


Many different methods were used to achieve these goals. These included:

  • a college-wide campaign focused on awareness, risk, and harm reduction strategies
  • training and consultation with the college's employees
  •  a mechanism for providing the college's students with access to existing community-based substance use treatment resources
  • digital program delivery strategies
  • an effective and supportive link between students transitioning from community substance support programs into the college.

For more information, visit the AC Umbrella Project