With rising academic pressure, new uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, and distance learning, high school students are facing an unprecedented amount of stress and anxiety. As marijuana use has been growing in popularity following legalization, teens may see marijuana as a way to “self-medicate” and relieve some of their mounting pressure. But, does it help with anxiety and depression?
How does marijuana affect the teen brain? Although touted to be “natural,” there is nothing natural about today’s marijuana. Due to advanced growing techniques, in the last 10 years, the amount of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — is 300 times greater than it was just 10 years ago. (Marijuana concentrates such as dabs and wax contain an even greater amount of THC.) Studies have shown that today’s potent marijuana can cause many different mental and physiological health problems for teens and young adults and may also interfere with important neurological development.
The developing teen brain differs significantly from the fully formed adult brain. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop and this part of the brain is responsible for executive functioning skills including paying attention, organizing and planning, starting and completing tasks, and managing emotions. This part of the brain is not fully developed until early adulthood so marijuana use during this time can significantly impact the development of the prefrontal cortex and can have life-long implications. The risks for problems increase due to the earlier one starts using, the more one uses, and the more potent the THC is.
Does marijuana help with anxiety and depression? THC mimics a chemical neurotransmitter that is naturally produced in the brain, called anandamide (also referred to as the “bliss molecule”), which produces feelings of well-being and pleasure. When THC reaches the brain, it mistakenly signals the brain that it has enough anandamide and it doesn’t need to produce its own. The decrease in anandamide is what causes the anxiety or depression that a marijuana user experiences between uses. A marijuana user may not produce enough anandamide to maintain consistent emotional regulation. They may feel anxious or depressed when the “high” from THC wears off, and they may come to rely on THC to feel better. In other words, they become dependent on it and need to use it to feel “normal”.
What do studies show regarding marijuana and mental illness? Marijuana has been identified as a risk factor for mental illnesses such as psychosis, schizophrenia, and psychiatric symptoms such as panic attacks. Teens who smoked marijuana at least once per month in the past year were found to be three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than non-users, and there is evidence that exposure to marijuana may worsen depression in youth. Marijuana use among youth has also been associated with other substance use and school failure.
How do I speak to my child about marijuana and mental health? More permissive attitudes toward marijuana may lead teens to believe that it is safe to use marijuana as a way to manage emotional challenges. However, learning to navigate life’s ups and downs in a healthy way is an important life skill. Explore potential lifestyle changes and other ways to practice self-care, such as yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation and mindfulness practices that teens can incorporate into their daily lives and rely on for help through challenging times. Share your concerns about marijuana interfering with adolescent brain development and join them in practicing healthy ways to reduce stress and anxiety.