Abstract Background Substance use among youth (ages 12–24) is troublesome given the increasing risk of harms associated. Even more so, substance use services are largely underutilized among youth, most only accessing support when in crisis. Few studies have explored young people’s help-seeking behaviours to address substance use concerns. To address this gap, this study explored how youth perceive and experience substance use services in British Columbia (BC), Canada. Methods Participatory action research methods were used by partnering with BC youth (under the age of 30) from across the province who have lived and/or living experience of substance use to co-design the research protocol and materials. An initial focus group and interviews were held with 30 youth (ages 12–24) with lived and/or living experience of substance use, including alcohol, cannabis, and illicit substances. The discussions were audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim, and analyzed thematically using a data-driven approach. Results Three main themes were identified and separated by phase of service interaction, starting with: Prevention/Early intervention, where youth described feeling unworthy of support; Service accessibility, where youth encountered many barriers finding relevant substance use services and information; and Service delivery, where youth highlighted the importance of meeting them where they are at, including supporting those who have milder treatment needs and/or do not meet the diagnosis criteria of a substance use disorder. Conclusions Our results suggest a clear need to prioritize substance use prevention and early interventions specifically targeting youth and young adults. Youth and peers with lived and/or living experience should be involved in co-designing and co-delivering such programs to ensure their relevance and credibility among youth. The current disease model of care leaves many of the needs of this population unmet, calling for a more integrated youth-centred approach to address the multifarious concerns linked to young people’s substance use and service outcomes and experiences.