Teen Marijuana Use Linked to Later Illness
Self-Medication, Especially for Depression, Raises Risk of Mental Problems, Study Says

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

Teenagers who smoke marijuana put themselves at risk for future mental illness and higher rates of depression, according to a report to be released today by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Although fewer teens overall are smoking marijuana, the report said, there is growing concern that those who do, particularly those who view the drug as a way to cope with depression, do not understand its consequences. It also is not clear whether their parents, who might have indulged when they were younger, understand the risks, experts say.

The report, whose release coincides with the start of Mental Health Awareness Month, said studies show links between marijuana use and risk of mental illness later in life, and that use could increase the risk by as much as 40 percent.

Teenage girls who smoke marijuana are particularly at risk, the report said. It found that teen girls who smoke marijuana daily are more likely to develop depression than those who do not.

The report also found that teenagers who smoke marijuana at least once a month are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than non-users. It said that even though the percentage of teens who are depressed is equal to the percentage of adults who say they are depressed, teenagers are more likely to seek solace in marijuana or other illicit drugs.

"Significant numbers of teenagers are self-medicating,'' said John P. Walters, director of the White House office. "They're turning to marijuana to reduce [symptoms of depression], and [the depression] is getting worse."

The report said that too often teens do not seek treatment for their depression, choosing instead to seek relief by smoking marijuana. They do not realize that pot can make their problems worse and can set them up for serious health consequences, it said.

Susan Lydick, coordinator of the Youth Suicide and Depression Initiative at the Fairfax Partnership for Youth, said the report offers new information to parents and the general public -- groups that are often unaware of the interplay between drug use and depression.

Walters said advances in technology allow researchers to better understand the effect drugs such as marijuana have on brain function. The research being done today "is breaking new ground in showing the role marijuana use is playing in depression," he said.

Added Larry Greenhill, president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: "What's new in this report is that it documents how serious the impact is of what was thought to be a mild recreational" drug.

Lydick said that in addition to teenage girls, minority youths are likely to seek relief for depression through drugs or other substances partly because of the social stigma some cultures attach to mental health problems.

"They don't want to go to mom, they don't want to go to their pastor, so the safer thing to do is to self-medicate with marijuana and other drugs,'' Lydick said.

She said the report's conclusions mirror many of the findings of a 2005 survey of Fairfax County youth. According to that study, Hispanic, Asian and African American teens reported higher percentages of depression than their white counterparts. Lydick said her agency is hosting a community forum next week to explore teen depression and addiction. Nationwide, about 2 million teenagers report having felt depressed or having lost interest in daily activities during the past year.

Beth Kane-Davidson, director of Suburban Hospital's Addiction Treatment Center in Bethesda, which serves teens and adults, said the report offers important information for people in her field.

It "opens the door for parents and teens to start thinking about their own decisions and the possible impact of their decisions on their future,'' she said. Too often, Kane-Davidson said, parents and teenagers downplay marijuana's impact because they see it as less harmful than other drugs, such as cocaine.

Contributing to the risk is the higher potency of marijuana being distributed today compared with what was available in the 1970s, when federal officials began analyzing the drug. A study done last year by researchers at the University of Mississippi found that, since the 1980s, the potency has doubled.

Walters said that despite a drop in usage among teenagers, those who are using are becoming more dependent on it. About 60 percent of first-time users are under the age of 18.

"We forget because we think of marijuana as something that's the least dangerous of illicit drugs, but far more teens are in treatment for dependency on marijuana than alcohol," Walters said.

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