A new White House report says that many American teenagers who are depressed and use marijuana to alleviate their condition are more likely to make it worse and even risk developing more serious mental health problems such as schizophrenia, anxiety, and even suicide.

The report, which came out last week, is from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and says millions of American teenagers say they experience feelings of hopelessness and loss of interest in the activities of normal daily life, both signs of depression. And many of these depressed youths are using marijuana and other substances.

The ONDCP report says that some teenagers are “self-medicating” their symptoms of depression with marijuana and don’t realize they could actually be making them worse.

May is Mental Health Awareness month, hence the timely release of the report, which estimates there are 2 million American teenagers who have felt depressed at some point over the last 12 months.

The report also suggests that depressed youths are more than twice as likely to have used marijuana, and abused it or become dependent on it, and nearly twice as likely to have used illegal substances over the same 12 months as non-depressed youths.

Director of the National Drug Control Policy, John P. Walters, told the press that:

“Marijuana is not the answer.”

“Too many young people are making a bad situation worse by using marijuana in a misguided effort to relieve their symptoms of depression,” he added, urging parents not to dismiss teen moodiness as a passing phase.

“Look closely at your teen’s behavior because it could be a sign of something more serious,” he said.

There is some good news: since 2001, 25 per cent fewer teenagers are using marijuana; however, they still outnumber the combined total of teens who use other drugs.

The report makes the following key points:

  • Teenagers who smoke marijuana at least once a month are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than those that never use it.
  • Marijuana use can lead to depression and other mental health disorders.
  • While the proportion of depressed teens is about the same as the proportion of depressed adults, they are more likely than adults to use marijuana and other illegal substances.
  • Teenage girls who use marijuana are more likely to develop depression than teenage girls who never use it.
  • Teenagers who are depressed are more likely to practise other risky behaviours like daily use of cigarettes and heavy use of alcohol than non-depressed teenagers.

Host of VH1’s (American cable TV channel) popular Celebrity Rehab program and addiction expert, Dr Drew Pinksy said:

“Don’t be fooled into thinking that pot is harmless.”

“Marijuana is an addictive drug,” he added, “Teens who are already depressed and use marijuana may increase their odds of suffering from even more serious mental health problems.”

Another serious aspect of this problem is that marijuana has become more potent over the last twenty or thirty years, which makes it even more likely that users will suffer mental health problems, said the report, which points to research showing that higher potency marijuana may be behind the rise in American youths seeking help for dependence on the drug.

Long term users of marijuana are more likely to develop schizophrenia, other forms of psychosis, and even become suicidal.

As Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr Nora D Volkow, explained:

“Not only are adolescents at greater risk for drug abuse, but they may suffer more consequences.”

“There is also some evidence that in vulnerable teens-because of genetic factors-the abuse of marijuana can trigger a schizophreniform disorder,” she added.

As well as not assuming that mood swings are just a passing phase, parents should also keep an eye out for careleness with grooming, change in friends, loss of interest in normal daily life’s activities, and withdrawing from family, suggests the report. They should also be more involved with their teenage children, ask them how they spend their time, and give them clear rules about drug use and the consequences if they break them.

“Teen Marijuana Use Worsens Depression: An Analysis of Recent Data Shows ‘Self-Medicating’ Could Actually Make Things Worse.”
Office of National Drug Control Policy, Executive Office of the President of the United States, May 2008.
Click here to download the report (PDF).

Source: Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD