Illustration of a marijuana leaf with a teenager struggling with depression.

Teens who use marijuana recreationally are two to three times more likely to develop depression than those who don’t use pot. (Example: Eric Carter)

Marijuana continues to be legalized across the US in 22 states and Washington DC, allowing the drug to be used and sold legally. Along with this, there seems to be a general consensus that marijuana (cannabis) is a relatively harmless drug. But a new Columbia University study suggests it’s especially true for teenagers.

The study published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).Data analyzed from more than 68,000 young people who participated in National Survey on Drug Use and Health; It collects data annually on tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs and mental health. The researchers found that disordered cannabis use (ie, using marijuana but not becoming addicted) was four times more common. Cannabis use disorders (People can’t stop using marijuana despite the health and social problems it causes in their lives). But the researchers found that both were “significantly associated” with mental disorders.

In particular, adolescents who use cannabis recreationally are two to three times more likely to develop depression than those who do not use pot. Adolescents with cannabis use disorders were four times more likely than non-users to develop a mental health disorder.

The researchers found a link between cannabis use and poor academic performance, skipping school and legal issues.

“Kids, year after year, come to believe that marijuana is safe and healthy – which is actually not true,” said the study’s lead author. Dr. Ryan Sultan An assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University tells Yahoo! Sultan is a child psychiatrist and noted that he is seeing more children achieving higher grades in preschool than in the past.

Sultan’s research first looked at teenagers addicted to cannabis, but later expanded to people who use the drug recreationally. He said it was surprising to see that these recreational users had a higher risk of developing mental health issues than non-users. “Typically, we think of recreational use as irrelevant to behavior,” he says.

That raises many questions for parents about how worried they should be and what to do next. Here’s what you need to know.

How worried should parents be?

Sultan said parents should be “very concerned” about the findings. “Some parents I work with ignore or condone this behavior. They don’t think about cannabis use as an issue, but it is,” he says.

Dr. A.S. Daniel FisherThe chair of pediatrics at Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, agrees. “I think the numbers are off—I think more kids are smoking pot than they’re letting on, and that’s more of a problem,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Marijuana affects the developing brain and children’s brains continue to develop until the age of 25. Mental health is such an issue – it can make it worse.”

Why Teens Use Marijuana Impacts Mental Health?

Sultan’s study didn’t examine why cannabis use was associated with mental health problems — it simply found a link. However, he said, cannabis use tends to feed into an unhealthy cycle with conditions such as depression and anxiety.

“Take a child who is troubled and prone to depression. Then more happens and the substance starts to make the mind feel good because it makes it feel good,” says Sultan. “The more you use it, the more it affects your thinking. This increases the likelihood of depression and more suicidal thoughts. It’s feedback that spirals down and gets to the point where we as child psychiatrists think.

And this brings up the big question of which comes first: mental health or pot use. Experts say it’s a little more complicated than that. “Often people use certain substances to numb certain emotions and feelings.” Dr. Mohammad ZeshanA clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School tells Yahoo! For teenagers, this can be related to peer pressure or other stressful situations, says cannabis, which “can help them relax, calm down and be happy; This creates more opportunity for reuse,” he said.

But Zeshan said the issue goes deeper than just saying that teenagers with mental health disorders are more likely to use marijuana. “There are a lot of factors that go into this,” he says.

Fisher agrees. “There’s definitely a group of kids with mental health issues who are looking for ways to self-medicate,” she says. But marijuana can mask depression or suicidality in children who haven’t previously reported it.

What can parents do?

The message surrounding marijuana over the past few years has been that it’s a relatively safe drug, Sultan says, and encourages parents to talk to their kids about why that’s not true. “Parents should educate their children about this,” he said. “Parents need to look at cannabis use and whether their children are at increased risk of depression and anxiety. The under-the-radar learning problem, depression and anxiety, should not be assumed to be a problem or ‘just a phase.’

“Be honest with your kids that their brains are exposed to this substance and it can lead to much worse things,” Fisher advises parents.

If you know your child uses the potty, Zeshan recommends using a more empathetic approach to talking about their use. “Sit down with your kids and try to understand why they’re using it,” he said. “Then try to help them. Are there other ways to deal with peer pressure and stress? Instead of punishing them, try to understand them and meet them where they are.”

But experts stress the importance of addressing pot use and its potential harmful effects on children. “It’s scary,” Fisher said. “I don’t think we should give this up.”

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