Substance abuse among teenagers is on the rise, and it’s not tik or heroin parents should be worried about, according to addiction specialist Sheryl Rahme, the founder of Changes Addiction Rehab in Northcliff, Johannesburg.
“There is a big belief that marijuana is safe – that it’s an innocent drug – but teens smoking weed are playing Russian roulette with their mental health,” she said.
Evidence showed that heavy and regular cannabis use in childhood and adolescence had a more severe and long-lasting negative impact when compared with marijuana use in adulthood.
Younger brains were typically more susceptible than adult ones to the harmful effects of marijuana.
The cognitive deficits seen in adolescents were similar to those seen in adults, but they were more long-lasting and less likely to be reversible after cannabis use was stopped. These deficits included problems with attention, learning and memory.
Rahme spoke of the numerous difficulties that arose in treating patients with psychosis who had smoked marijuana from a young age.
She said: “Kids left to use marijuana are opening up the door to irreversible mental health conditions. Their detox takes much longer than other patients who do not smoke marijuana.”
Further, the relapse rate with marijuana was also incredibly high, because most young people did not believe the drug was dangerous or life-threatening, or that they would suffer any ill-effects from using it.
Mental health disorders and addiction were very cunning, because the illnesses themselves convinced patients they were not unwell and did not need to stop doing drugs. The fact that many young people did not regard cannabis as a drug more often than not led to further substance abuse and long-term addiction, warned Rahme.
She said using marijuana with a higher THC level could increase the risk for schizophrenia and lower the age at which the disease began, according to a World Health Organization evaluation of the evidence. This was especially true for those who began using the substance before they reached adulthood.
According to her, most teens started using drugs or alcohol between the ages of 12 and 14. However, she warned that parents and caregivers should not wait until drug use had progressed to drug abuse or addiction to intervene.
She further alluded to the fact that marijuana use was taken so lightly that it ended up placing a huge strain on the health-care system, the legal and police systems, the school system, and society in general. The cost of rehabilitation was high, with poor outcomes.
Despite the lack of statistics regarding marijuana use in South Africa, Rahme asserted that, based on her 35 years of experience in working with addicts in the rehab industry, smoking marijuana was the leading cause of psychosis, early-onset schizophrenia, toxic psychosis, and addictive personality disorders. Marijuana addicts were slow, stunted, blunted, struggled to regulate their emotions, and could be left permanently with a mental health disorder.
She said one of the most common symptoms of marijuana addiction was the “motivational syndrome”. Users of the drug very seldom finished school, and they also failed to continue with hobbies and/or sports. Very often, they got stuck in a cycle of being a victim, feeling the world was out to persecute them.
They also developed “learned helplessness”, so that the family or society ended up taking more and more responsibility for them and their failures to launch.
She said teenagers’ brains were still very much developing, and she encouraged parents to act as soon as they discovered their child was using drugs.
She recommended that parents join a support group and seek professional assistance. For example, in October last year Changes Addiction Rehab launched its adolescent substance abuse programme in response to requests from local parents and schools for assistance for kids already dealing with the after-effects of drug and alcohol use.
The four-week outpatient programme catered for children aged 13 to 18, and provided a space for them to learn about addiction in a therapeutic environment.
“The programme is a balance of cognitive information and a therapeutic approach that teaches teens healthy life skills,” explained Rahme.
In addition to risks related to mental health, research had found that marijuana use before the age of 15 was related to dropping out of school early. Long-term heavy cannabis use in children and adolescents was also associated with negative consequences later in life such as having a low income, being unemployed, and using other drugs.
“Unfortunately, many people don’t realise that addiction is a recognised mental health disorder, and all too often there is a very soft approach to marijuana specifically. People are not scared of it when they should be terrified.”
Read the latest issue of IOL Health digital magazine here.