Causal marijuana use in adolescents is not without danger. Here’s why experts say parents should be “very concerned.”

Marijuana leaf silhouette with teenager struggling with depression.

Teens who use marijuana recreationally were two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those who don’t use it at all. (Illustration: Erik Carter)

Marijuana continues to be legalized in the United States, with 22 states and Washington, DC allowing the legal use and sale of the drug. With that, there seems to be a general consensus that marijuana (i.e. cannabis) is a relatively harmless drug. But a new study from Columbia University suggests otherwise, especially for teens.

The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), analyzed data from more than 68,000 teens involved in the National Drug Use and Health Survey, which annually collects data on tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs and mental health. The researchers found that non-disordered cannabis use (that is, using marijuana without being addicted to it) was about four times more common than cannabis use disorder (a condition in which people are unable to stop using marijuana even though it causes health and social problems for them). their lives). But the researchers also found that both were “significantly associated” with psychiatric disorders.

Specifically, teens who use cannabis recreationally were two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression and have suicidal thoughts than those who don’t use it at all. Teens who have a cannabis use disorder were four times more likely to have mental health disorders than non-users.

Researchers have also found a link between cannabis use and poor school performance, school absenteeism and legal problems.

“Children, year by year, have gotten closer to the idea that marijuana is safe and benign – that’s factually incorrect,” lead study author Dr. Ryan Sultan told Yahoo Life. , assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. Sultan is a child psychiatrist and points out that he has seen more children get high before school than in the past.

Sultan’s study originally focused on teens addicted to cannabis, but later expanded to those who use it recreationally. He says it was “very surprising” to see that these recreational users had a much higher risk than non-users of developing mental health issues. “We generally don’t think recreational use is a behavior of concern,” he says.

This raises a lot of questions for parents about how worried they are and what to do in the future. Here’s what you need to know.

How concerned should parents be?

Sultan says parents should be “very concerned” about the results. “Some parents I work with either ignore or condone this behavior. They don’t think cannabis use is a concern, but it is,” he says.

Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., agrees. “I think the numbers are wrong – I think more kids are smoking weed than they’re letting on and that’s an even bigger problem,” she told Yahoo Life. “Marijuana affects the developing brain, and children’s brains develop until the age of 25. Mental health is such a problem – it can make it worse. »

Why might teenage marijuana use impact mental health?

Sultan’s study didn’t explore why cannabis use is associated with more mental health complications – it simply found a link. However, he says cannabis use tends to fuel an unhealthy cycle with conditions such as depression and anxiety.

“Take a child who has problems and is at risk of depression: he is exposed to cannabis when he is younger and feels less stressed. Then it happens more and starts to awaken his mind to this feeling that the substance makes it feel better,” Sultan says. “The more you use it, the more it negatively affects the way you think. This increases the likelihood of depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s feedback that spirals down and gets to a place that really concerns us as child psychiatrists.

It also raises the broader question of which comes first: mental health conditions or pot use. Experts say it’s a bit more complex than that. “A lot of times people use certain substances to numb some of the emotions and feelings that they have,” Dr. Muhammad Zeshan, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told Yahoo Life. In the case of teenagers, it may be related to peer pressure or other stressors, he says, noting that cannabis “can help them feel relaxed, calm and happy, which makes them more likely to consume it again”.

But Zeshan says the problem goes deeper than saying that mentally ill teens are more likely to use marijuana. “There are a lot of factors that come into play,” he says.

Fisher agrees. “There is definitely a subset of kids with mental health issues who are looking for ways to self-medicate,” she says. “But marijuana might also unmask depression or suicidality in children who hadn’t expressed it before.”

What can parents do?

The message around marijuana in recent years has been that it’s a relatively safe drug, Sultan says, and he encourages parents to explain to their children why that’s not true. “Parents need to educate their children about this,” he says. “Parents need to address cannabis use, as well as the increased risk of depression and anxiety in their children. Your radar should show that they’re much more likely to have learning problems, depression and anxiety, and not assume it’s not problematic or “just a phase”.

Fisher suggests that parents “talk openly to their children about their brain exposure to this substance and it can make things a lot worse.”

If you find out your child is using potty, Zeshan recommends using a more compassionate approach to talking to them about its use. “Try to sit down with your kids and figure out why they’re using it,” he says. “Then try to help them. Are there other ways to deal with peer pressure and stress? Rather than punishing them, be more understanding and try to meet them where they are at.

But experts stress the importance of addressing potty use and its potentially harmful effects in children. “It’s scary,” Fisher says. “I don’t think we should reject that.”

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