Adolescence is widely regarded as a time of heightened vulnerability and the age when many people start experimenting with cannabis. Many people try cannabis without developing any harmful habits, but for others it can become a coping mechanism with negative consequences that may last through young adulthood.
Cannabis use and suicidal behavior in young adults is a topic that has gained increased attention as youth suicide rates climb. For parents, it’s crucial to understand the relationship between these two issues and how they may affect your child. In this guide, our aim is to provide you with the knowledge and resources necessary to support your teenager or young adult child through a time of many transitions, so that they may be equipped to make educated choices.
The relationship between cannabis use and suicidal behavior is multifaceted. Several studies have suggested that there is an association between the two, although the exact nature of this relationship is not yet fully understood. Some possible explanations include:
According to a study that surveyed 280,000 young adults under 35, a heightened increase of suicidality was noted in people who both had experience of a major depressive episode and were heavy users of cannabis .
It is essential to note that the relationship between cannabis use and suicidal behavior does not necessarily imply causation. Further research is needed to establish a definitive causal link.
Cannabis use among young adults has been on the rise, though in the past few years it may have waned again. According to a study published in Health Affairs, past-year cannabis use increased from 10.4 percent of US adults in 2002 to 15.3 percent in 2017, with the proportion of past-year users reporting near-daily use doubling between 2006 and 2016 . According to the most recent data, 12.8% of 12 to 17 year olds reported using cannabis in 2022 .
Any prevalence of cannabis use amongst teens warrants attention, given the potential risks associated with it.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens and the past decade has witnessed a sharp increase in teens and young adults taking their own lives.
Young men commit suicide at a significantly higher rate than young women.
Many parents also might be surprised to learn that according to a 2019 survey, almost one fifth of high school students seriously considered committing suicide.
With these worrying statistics in mind, it is natural to ask what are the warning sings of suicidal ideation? Even though it is normal for teenagers to be more reticent and have greater demands for privacy, parents and caretakers should be aware of the following warning signs that may indicate suicidal behavior in their teenagers:
Predicting who will commit suicide is notoriously difficult, so it is always better to err on the side of caution. If you notice any of these warning signs in your teenager, it’s essential to take them seriously and seek professional help immediately.
John Ackerman PhD, is a child clinical psychologist and the Suicide Prevention Clinical Manager for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research (CSPR) at Nationwide Children's Hospital (NCH).
"A conversation about depression or suicide is going to be difficult, but you can have it without putting a young person at risk and it can be very helpful. For the young person, having this discussion can be incredibly relieving. It is a powerful opportunity to understand that being emotionally open, especially about thoughts of suicide, can lead to healing and connection rather than shame and isolation."
"If your child’s friend tells them they are feeling suicidal, your child should tell their friend that they care about them and acknowledge that they are hurting. After their friend knows they are being listened to and supported, the next step is to ask specifically if they are thinking about suicide or have tried to kill themselves... If they say “yes” or even “I’m not sure,” a trusted adult should be told right away. Never leave someone alone if they are showing warning signs of suicide."
"Tips for parents, families and teachers include: Do not wait for a crisis. A good opportunity to talk about suicide or mental health issues is when things are going well. Check in regularly and ask your child directly how they are doing and if they have ever had thoughts about ending their life."
"Look for changes in mood or behavior that might be a warning sign that something is wrong. For example, if the child seems really down, they stop doing things they normally enjoy, or you notice significant changes in eating or sleeping."
Cannabis can have various effects on the mental health of young adults, which may depend on factors such as frequency and duration of use, individual vulnerability, and the potency of the cannabis used. Some of the potential mental health effects of cannabis use include:
Frequent and high-dose cannabis use can cause disorientation and, at times, lead to unpleasant thoughts or feelings of anxiety and paranoia
People who use cannabis, particularly in high doses, are more likely to develop temporary psychosis, which may involve not knowing what is real, experiencing hallucinations, and paranoia.
Studies have linked cannabis use to an increased risk for clinical depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
The short-term effects of cannabis use on mental health may vary depending on the individual and the specific circumstances surrounding the use. Some potential short-term effects include:
There is a distinct set of more significant and lasting effects on mental health from prolonged and heavy cannabis use. Some of these potential long-term effects include:
Given that mental health disorders have been identified as a long-term effect of heavy cannabis consumption, it is important to specify which conditions are more prevalent among cannabis users. Research has found a correlation of cannabis use with conditions including:
Particularly among young adults, an increase in the incidents of depression have been reported among cannabis users.
Some individuals report that cannabis use exacerbates their anxiety symptoms and anxiety disorders are more common in people who use cannabis regularly.
Cannabis use, particularly in high doses, has been associated with an increased risk of developing psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. The risk is especially pronounced in individuals with a family history of psychosis or other predisposing factors.
As mentioned earlier, cannabis use has been linked to suicidal ideation and behavior among young adults. This association may be mediated by the increased risk of depression and anxiety in cannabis users.
As young adults navigate the complex challenges of today’s world, it is essential to understand the factors that can make them more vulnerable to suicidal ideation and cannabis use. Especially since it is difficult establish causality between cannabis use and teen suicide, it is important to acknowledge that both behaviors independently share many risk factors.
Studies have found not only that youth suicides are higher in counties with lower income levels, but also that firearms are used to commit suicide more often by children from counties with higher concentrations of poverty . This underscores the need as a parent, regardless of income, to make sure that any firearms in the home are securely stored and out of the reach of any children.
Parents can take several steps to prevent or reduce the risk of cannabis use and suicidal behavior in their teenagers:
As a parent, you play a crucial role in supporting your teenager through the challenges associated with cannabis use and suicidal behavior. Here are some steps you can take to help your child:
As difficult as effective communication with teenagers can seem, it is crucial for parents to stay tuned in to their teenager’s life. In this section, we will discuss strategies that parents can use to build trust, maintain an open dialogue with their teenagers, and foster a supportive environment for discussing challenging and intimate issues.
Developing resilience and healthy coping skills in teenagers is essential for their overall well-being and ability to navigate life’s challenges. In this section, we will discuss how parents can help their teenagers cultivate these skills and explore activities and hobbies that can help young adults manage stress, reduce the risk of cannabis use, and prevent suicidal behavior.
As cannabis legislation evolves, it is important for parents to understand the impact these laws and policies may have on young adults and their mental health. This section will discuss how changes in cannabis legislation may affect young adults and provide guidance on how parents can stay informed about these changes to protect their teenagers’ well-being.
By understanding the current legal landscape and engaging with relevant organizations and resources, parents can be equipped to support their teenagers in making informed decisions and prioritize their mental well-being. Cannabis use has many legal and health consequences that teenagers might not be fully informed about as they start to experiment with cannabis.
There are several online resources available for parents seeking guidance on addressing cannabis use and suicidal behavior in their teenagers. These resources provide information, support, and practical tips for navigating these challenging issues:
The NIDA for Teens website offers valuable information on drug use, prevention, and treatment, specifically geared towards adolescents and their parents. They also have resources for educators and counselors.
SAMHSA provides a wealth of information on substance use, mental health, and prevention for parents, educators, and healthcare professionals. Their website includes various resources, including a treatment locator to find local support services.
The AFSP website offers information on understanding and preventing suicide, as well as resources for those affected by suicide. They provide guidance on talking about suicide, risk factors, and finding support.
This website offers resources for individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts, as well as guidance for friends and family members who want to help. They also provide a 24/7 helpline (1-800-273-TALK) for immediate support.
This organization offers support, guidance, and resources for families affected by addiction. Their website features articles, videos, and tools to help parents understand and address substance use issues with their teenagers.
MHA provides information on various mental health topics, including suicide prevention and substance use. Their website features resources for parents, educators, and individuals seeking help.
Aims to reduce the number of youth suicides and attempted suicides by encouraging public awareness through the development and promotion of educational training programs.
Provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ young people under 25.
A confidential helpline for teenagers, offering peer-to-peer support through calls, text, and email.
A mental health organization offering support, resources, and advocacy for individuals and families affected by mental illness.
A program by Boys Town that provides support for teens and young adults struggling with a variety of issues, including suicidal thoughts, through phone, text, chat, and email.
A free, confidential online support service for teens and young adults facing mental health challenges, offering information, peer support, and referrals to professional help.