In recent times one of the most recurring and troubling conversations I have with teenagers, in therapy, is around their use of marijuana. Often parents seek out therapy because they have noticed a dramatic shift in their child’s behaviour.
They have become introverted, withdrawn from once-loved activities, and are visibly lethargic. They are agitated and quick to lose their temper if challenged. Everyone in the family is suffering due to the presence of marijuana in their child’s life.
In my initial conversation with the adolescent, I regularly meet the same sentiment. They are quick to point out that smoking marijuana is a harmless activity. They explain in great detail how medicinal marijuana is a huge business in America and that it’s legalised in many countries.
They are very vocal about the backwardness of Ireland’s approach to a harmless drug. And they are quick to diminish their parents' concerns as the prudish prying of old-fashioned people.
There is something very powerful about the narrative around marijuana that keeps us all from really seeing what this drug does to the young minds that inhale it.
I have seen it first hand, time and time again, in my clinical work. Even as I write this I find myself questioning, am I just being prudish? Have I moved so far out of my own adolescence that I don’t remember what it was like to be a disconnected, recalcitrant teenager?
Maybe. But I have worked with families who are supporting their child after they have been sectioned in a psychiatric unit because they had a psychotic episode after marijuana consumption. This is not an extreme example. I would meet families like this nearly every other month. But we do not hear about these cases. Why is that?
I think it’s due to the erroneous discourse that is out there about marijuana. I also think that most parents will have probably dabbled with the substance at some point during their own adolescence and as a result view it as the harmless rite of passage. So when they discover their own teenager’s habit they look away.
Because they interpret it as just normal teenage curiosity and a benign activity. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I get asked to talk in schools a lot about different issues impacting teenagers, from gaming, anxiety, resilience to drug and alcohol use.
One of the questions I start my presentation on drug and alcohol prevention is, "Does anyone here know the mental health history of their family?"
This is generally met with a little chuckle or reverberating silence. But by the end of the talk, they are very aware of why I started with a question about intergenerational mental health history. One of the most insidious aspects of marijuana use during the development stages of the brain is that it can trigger latent mental health issues that would have lay dormant had they not been provoked by ingesting Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
This is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces the feeling of being high. In 2017, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released a study on the health effects of cannabis. The study found that not only did smoking cannabis impair the respiratory system but also that “there was a strong link between the use of cannabis and the development of schizophrenia”.
I have seen the evidence of this so clearly in my own work. We must change how we view it before we start to tackle it. When we were children marijuana would not have been as potent. It is very important that parents understand this fact. Marijuana has two active compounds THC and CBD.
The latter is unlike THC in that it is a non-psychoactive compound, which means it does not have the same impact on the brain as THC does. In modern terms, CBD is being reduced and THC is dramatically increased to make the high far more profound and subsequently far more devastating for the growing brain.
Awareness through education is key. Children will always push the boundaries during adolescence. But if we work together, school and family, we can educate them so that they understand the full implications of taking a substance like marijuana into their lives.
We want them to choose positivity over negativity. We know that drink is not really medicinal. We are fooling ourselves with marijuana. The more honest conversations we have about the substance and the impact it is having on our children the more informed they will be when they are offered the substance.
We cannot be with them in those moments. But hopefully, we will have taught them to make the right decisions when no one is watching.