Online support for students struggling with cannabis use

Study suggests online self-help interventions might be an effective public health approach to reduce problematic cannabis use among students.

Problematic cannabis users rarely seek substance use support or treatment according to  Alexandra Loverock, a School of Public Health PhD student. A new study led by Loverock suggests that online self-help interventions might be an effective public health approach to reduce problematic cannabis use among Canadian university students.

“Stigma is one of the reasons people don’t seek help, people are scared they will be judged if they talk to a counsellor or their friends about their cannabis use,” said Loverock. “Online tools are great because they allow them to access support at any time in the safety and privacy of their home.”

The study, published in Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, analyzed the survey data of 649 cannabis-using Canadian university students. It found that students who met a screening threshold for problematic cannabis use, such as driving while under the influence, were more interested in accessing free online self-help services than those that were not using problematically.

Loverock’s team predicted that students who frequently use cannabis to cope with “negative affect” would have increased interest in online interventions. Negative affect involves regular experiences of negative emotions and poor self-worth and is associated with problematic cannabis use.   

The team found that students using cannabis for coping and expansion motives (i.e., reasons related to expanding awareness or creativity) were also interested in accessing online resources. Loverock noted that students using cannabis protective behaviours, such as limiting your use to weekends or with trusted peers, were also interested in accessing online support.

“People who are using cannabis problematically are interested in accessing fact-based, non-judgmental resources,” said Loverock. “Online intervention and education help us connect them with services and change some of the negative attitudes that people hold towards those who are using substances.”

Bringing resources online

The goal of Loverock’s work is to develop and test public health tools to support cannabis harm reduction. She wants to support and empower people with the tools to use substances safely. While cannabis use presents some risks, using more safely can mitigate them.

Loverock and her PhD supervisor Cameron Wild are collaborating with other researchers to develop an online information tool called SSMRT (Screening, Self-management, Referral to Treatment) to meet the identified need.

“It’s a large online collection of resources on cannabis and provides guidance on ways to reduce your own harm. It also includes an assessment tool so you can see how your own cannabis use compares to others,” said Loverock. “The literature shows that if you can see that you are using more, or less safely, than other people you might reflect on your own use and change habits.”

The SSMRT website is currently undergoing pilot testing for usability to ensure the language is non-stigmatizing and appropriate for university students.

While the tool is currently focused on cannabis use for university students, Loverock hopes to expand the tool to address different types of substances (such as alcohol or opioids) and populations in the future.

This project is funded and supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research through a grant to CRISM Prairies.


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