Legal Weed Feeds the Teen Mental-Health Crisis

Legal Weed Feeds the Teen Mental-Health Crisis
Legal Weed Feeds the Teen Mental-Health Crisis

A marijuana cigarette is lit in New York, Dec. 29, 2022.

Photo: Angel Colmenares/Zuma Press

Twenty-one states have legalized recreational marijuana use since 2012, and teen mental-health problems have been on the rise in the same period. The connection between the two, which I’ve observed in my work as a psychoanalyst, doesn’t get enough attention. A 2019 meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry observed that “cannabis consumption in adolescence is associated with increased risk of developing major depression in young adulthood and suicidality, especially suicidal ideation.” A 2021 National Institutes of Health study likewise found a heightened risk of suicide, “greater for women than men.”

The idea that marijuana isn’t addictive is out of date. Weed was considered nonaddictive in the 1960s because the levels of the psychoactive chemical THC were minimal. But marijuana has steadily increased in potency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3 in 10 users have “cannabis use disorder.”

Marijuana directly affects key parts of the developing adolescent brain, including those involved in memory, learning, attention, decision-making, coordination, emotion and reaction time. It also serves as an emotional crutch. Young people who depend on pot may not learn to self-regulate and could be flooded with negative emotion so intense as to lead to a mental breakdown or withdrawal.

Weed use or withdrawal can also cause a “depersonalization” experience—not quite psychosis, which completely cuts you off from reality, but a close cousin. One young patient told me, “I almost wish I was psychotic because I wouldn’t know that I am feeling crazy.” A depersonalization event may entail a feeling of unreality or obsessional loops of the form: “I can’t stop thinking about thinking and it’s driving me crazy.” It can lead to serious anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, depression and suicide.

Every state that permits recreational marijuana use restricts it to those 21 and older, but minors still have access to the drug. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that in 2019 use of the drug in teens reached its highest rate in 30 years. Like alcohol, weed is common on campus, where many students are underage. My 21-year-old son tells me that all his friends at college use marijuana recreationally and very often. These are functional students at a good school, but they’re at risk of downstream psychological problems because of their drug use.

Parents often ask me what they can do to protect their kids from suicide. I say scare them—scare them about the consequences of marijuana use. Educate them on the dangers, maintain open communication and be emotionally available. Passivity is the enemy of mental health; if you suspect your child is using marijuana or other drugs, take action and address the issue head on. Your fear and vigilance regarding drugs may be the difference between a child who makes it through adolescence and one who doesn’t.

Ms. Komisar is a psychoanalyst and author of “Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.”

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Appeared in the March 2, 2023, print edition.

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