Cannabis Usage & Suicidal Behavior in Young Adults – What Parents Should Know

A time of heightened vulnerability

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.

What is the relationship between cannabis use and suicidal behavior in young adults?

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:

  • Cannabis may exacerbate underlying mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, which can increase the risk of suicidal behavior [2].
  • The psychoactive component of cannabis, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), can lead to feelings of paranoia, confusion, or fear, which may contribute to suicidal thoughts or actions [3].
  • Daily cannabis users may experience higher levels of perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness, which have been linked to suicidal ideation [4].

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 [2].

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.

How prevalent is cannabis use among young adults?

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 [1]. According to the most recent data, 12.8% of 12 to 17 year olds reported using cannabis in 2022 [3].



Any prevalence of cannabis use amongst teens warrants attention, given the potential risks associated with it.

What are the warning signs of suicidal behavior in young adults?

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:

  • Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or being a burden to others
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and activities they previously enjoyed
  • Changes in sleep patterns, appetite, or weight
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs, including cannabis
  • Sudden mood swings or changes in personality
  • Giving away prized possessions or making arrangements for after their death
  • Engaging in reckless or self-destructive behavior

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.

Expert Interview

John Ackerman, PhD

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).

John Ackerman, PhD
What is the importance of having open conversations with children about depression and suicide, and how should these conversations be approached?

"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."

How should a child respond if a friend confides in them about suicidal feelings, and what actions should they take?

"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."

What can parents and other adults do to proactively prevent mental health crises among young people?

"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."

What signs should parents look out for in their children that might indicate a struggle with mental health or suicidal thoughts?

"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."

Effects of Cannabis on Mental Health

How does cannabis affect the mental health of young adults?

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:

Anxiety and Paranoia

Frequent and high-dose cannabis use can cause disorientation and, at times, lead to unpleasant thoughts or feelings of anxiety and paranoia

Temporary Psychosis

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.

Increased Risk for Mental Health Disorders

Studies have linked cannabis use to an increased risk for clinical depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.

Short-term and long-term effects of cannabis use on mental health
Short-term effects

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:

  1. Impaired memory and concentration
  2. Altered judgment and decision-making
  3. Increased risk of accidents or injuries
  4. Heightened sensory perceptions
  5. Anxiety and panic attacks
  6. Psychotic symptoms in susceptible individuals
Long-term effects

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:

  1. Cognitive decline - Long-term cannabis users may experience a decline in IQ, with an average loss of 5.5 points from childhood, even after quitting cannabis[3].
  2. Increased risk of mental health disorders - Chronic cannabis use has been linked to a higher risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation[2].
  3. Dependence and addiction - Dependence and addiction arising from long-term cannabis use can negatively impact various aspects of a person's life, including relationships, work, long term goals, and overall well-being.
Specific mental health conditions more prevalent among cannabis users

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.

Psychotic disorders

Cannabis use, particularly in high doses, has been associated with an increased risk of developing psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia[5]. The risk is especially pronounced in individuals with a family history of psychosis or other predisposing factors.

Suicidal ideation and behavior

As mentioned earlier, cannabis use has been linked to suicidal ideation and behavior among young adults[2]. This association may be mediated by the increased risk of depression and anxiety in cannabis users.

Risk Factors and Vulnerability

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.

Personal factors
Mental health conditions and personality traits
  • Previous suicide attempts[1]
  • History of depression and other mental illnesses[1][2]
  • Serious illness, such as chronic pain[1]
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies[1][5]
Family history and childhood experiences
  • Family history of mood disorders, suicide, or suicidal behavior[2][6]
  • History of physical or sexual abuse or exposure to violence or bullying[2][3]
Substance use
  • Cannabis use and other substance use disorders can increase the risk of suicidal behavior[2][3]
Social factors
Relationship issues
  • Poor or non-existent relationships with peers or family members[5]
  • Social isolation and lack of support networks
Peer pressure and social norms
  • Being pressured by peers to engage in risky behaviors, including substance use and self-harm
  • Exposure to a social environment, such as a household, neighborhood, or social media landscape, that normalizes or glamorizes cannabis use and other harmful behaviors
Discrimination and stigma
  • Experiences of discrimination or stigma related to race, gender, sexual orientation, or other factors
  • Struggles with sexual identity in an unsupportive family or community[3]
Economic factors
Financial stressors
  • Job loss and financial problems[1]
  • Limited access to resources and opportunities for education and employment
Socioeconomic status
  • Lower socioeconomic status can be linked to higher rates of mental health issues, substance use, and suicidal behavior
  • Limited access to quality mental health care and support services in economically disadvantaged communities
  • Environmental factors that contribute to suicidal behavior and cannabis use
Access to means
  • Access to lethal means, such as firearms, can increase the risk of suicide[6]
  • Availability of cannabis and other substances in the community or social circles
Exposure to harmful online content
  • Exposure to pro-suicide or self-harm content on social media and other online platforms
  • Vulnerability to online harassment, especially among younger social media users[7]
Community violence and crime
  • Living in areas with high rates of violence or crime can increase the risk of mental health issues, substance use, and suicidal behavior[4]

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 [11]. 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.

Prevention and Intervention Strategies

What can parents do to prevent or reduce the risk of cannabis use and suicidal behavior in their teenagers?

Parents can take several steps to prevent or reduce the risk of cannabis use and suicidal behavior in their teenagers:

  1. Establish open communication:
    1. Encourage honest and open conversations about mental health, substance use, and other sensitive topics
    2. Listen actively and respond with empathy and understanding, being sure to check you own emotional reactions to thing they might share[1]
  2. Monitor and set clear boundaries:
    1. Be aware of your teenager’s whereabouts and activities
    2. Set clear expectations and consequences for substance use[3]
  3. Foster a supportive home environment:
    1. Provide warmth, caring, and support to your teenager
    2. Maintain a close relationship built on mutual trust and respect[6]
  4. Be aware of warning signs:
    1. Familiarize yourself with signs of mental health issues, suicidal behavior, and substance use
    2. Seek professional help if you notice any concerning behaviors[4]
Supporting Teenagers Struggling with Cannabis Use and Suicidal Behavior

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:

  1. Take their concerns seriously:
    1. Maintain open lines of communication with your teenager.
    2. Respond to any mention of suicide or self-harm with urgency and seriousness.
    3. Do not dismiss their feelings or experiences[1].
  2. Offer a non-judgmental space for communication:
    1. Allow your teenager to express their feelings without fear of judgment or criticism.
    2. Validate their emotions and concerns.
  3. Seek professional help:
    1. Consult with mental health professionals, such as therapists or counselors, to address your teenager’s mental health and substance use issues.
    2. Be vigilant for warning signs of suicidal behavior and seek professional help as soon as any signs manifest.
  4. Stay involved in their treatment:
    1. Attend therapy sessions, if appropriate, and actively participate in their treatment process.
    2. Collaborate with mental health professionals to develop a comprehensive support plan.
    3. Encourage healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise, meditation, or engaging in hobbies and interests that promote well-being.
    4. Stay informed about the latest research and developments in the fields of cannabis use and mental health.

Communication and Building Trust

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.

How can parents effectively communicate with their teenagers about cannabis use and suicidal behavior?
  • Be open and non-judgmental:Demonstrate to your teen that you can create and hold a safe space for them. Approach the conversation with empathy and understanding, allowing your teenager to express their thoughts and feelings without fear of criticism or judgment [3].
  • Choose the right time and place: Initiate the conversation when both you and your teenager are calm and have enough time to discuss the topic in depth. Select a comfortable and private setting to facilitate open communication.
  • Use active listening: Give your full attention to your teenager, listening carefully to their words, and acknowledging their feelings. Show them that you value their perspective, this fosters trust.
  • Provide accurate information: Offer factual, evidence-based information about the risks and consequences of cannabis use and the warning signs of suicidal behavior. This helps your teenager make informed decisions and forms the basis for an open discussion about both of your concerns.
  • Share personal experiences: If appropriate, share your own experiences or those of others to illustrate the potential consequences of cannabis use or the importance of seeking help for suicidal thoughts.
  • Encourage questions: Invite your teenager to ask questions and answer them honestly and objectively.
  • Offer support and resources: Assure your teenager that you are there to support them and provide resources for help if needed.
What strategies can parents use to build trust and maintain an open dialogue with their teenagers?
  • Develop a strong foundation: Establish a strong, trusting relationship with your teenager by consistently demonstrating love, support, and understanding [1].
  • Maintain open lines of communication: Encourage regular conversations about a wide range of topics, not just difficult issues, to help create an environment in which open dialogue is the norm.
  • Show genuine interest: Take an interest in your teenager’s life, asking about their friends, activities, and experiences to demonstrate that you really care about their whole being [3].
  • Be approachable: Foster an approachable demeanor by being available and receptive to your teenager’s concerns and by maintaining a calm and non-judgmental attitude.
  • Respect their privacy: Acknowledge your teenager’s need for privacy and autonomy while maintaining an appropriate level of involvement in their life.
  • Model effective communication: Demonstrate respectful and open communication in your own relationships, as teenagers often learn from their parents’ example.
  • Address conflicts calmly: When conflicts arise, address them calmly and constructively, focusing on resolving the issue rather than placing blame or becoming defensive.

Building Resilience and Coping Skills

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.

How can parents help their teenagers develop resilience and healthy coping skills?
  • Be supportive: re-read the strategies we’ve listed above and make sure your teen knows they can count on you for support [6].
  • Model resilience: Demonstrate healthy coping strategies and resilience in your own life, as teenagers often learn by example.
  • Encourage problem-solving: Teach your teen to approach challenges with a problem-solving mindset, brainstorming possible solutions and evaluating their effectiveness.
  • Foster emotional awareness: Help your teen identify and understand their emotions and provide guidance on healthy ways to express and cope with them.
  • Promote self-confidence: Encourage your teen to take on new challenges and provide praise for their efforts and accomplishments.
  • Cultivate a growth mindset: Teach your teen to view setbacks as opportunities for growth and learning rather than failures [3].
  • Encourage social connections: Support your teen in developing and maintaining strong relationships with friends, family members, and other supportive individuals.
What activities and hobbies can help young adults manage stress and reduce the risk of cannabis use and suicidal behavior?
  • Exercise: Regular physical activity can help reduce stress, improve mood, and boost self-esteem. Encourage your teen to participate in activities they enjoy, such as sports, dance, or hiking.
  • Creative outlets: Engaging in creative activities, such as painting, drawing, writing, or playing a musical instrument, can provide a healthy way for teens to express their emotions and cope with stress.
  • Mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Teach your teen mindfulness practices, such as meditation, deep breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation, to help them manage stress and develop emotional resilience.
  • Volunteering and community involvement: Participating in volunteer activities or community projects can provide a sense of purpose and belonging, while also helping to build a support network.
  • Hobbies and interests: Encourage your teen to explore and pursue hobbies or interests that they are passionate about, as these can provide a sense of accomplishment and a healthy distraction from stressors.
  • Social activities: Support your teen in engaging in social activities, such as joining clubs or organizations, attending events, or simply spending time with friends, as strong social connections can contribute to emotional well-being.
  • Time in nature: Encourage your teen to spend time outdoors, as exposure to natural environments has been shown to reduce stress and promote mental health.

Treatment and Recovery

What treatment options are available for young adults dealing with cannabis addiction and suicidal behavior?
Cannabis Addiction
  • Outpatient programs: These programs allow young adults to continue living at home while attending therapy sessions and support groups in a structured environment.
  • Inpatient programs: In more severe cases, inpatient or residential treatment programs may be recommended. These programs provide 24/7 care and support in a controlled environment, with a focus on individual and group therapy, skill-building, and relapse prevention.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps individuals identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with substance use.
  • Contingency management: This approach involves providing rewards or incentives for achieving treatment goals, such as maintaining sobriety or attending therapy sessions.
  • Family therapy: Involving the family in the treatment process can help address underlying issues that may contribute to addiction and provide support for the entire family.
Suicidal Behavior
  • Psychotherapy: Individual therapy, such as CBT or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), can help individuals manage their emotions, develop coping skills, and address the underlying issues contributing to suicidal thoughts.
  • Medication: In some cases, medications may be prescribed to treat underlying mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior [7].
  • Crisis intervention: Immediate support and intervention may be necessary for individuals at imminent risk of suicide. This can include hospitalization or working with a crisis response team.
  • Support groups: Connecting with others who have experienced similar struggles can provide valuable support and encouragement.
How can parents help their teenagers find the right treatment program?
  1. Research available options: Parents can explore different treatment programs and providers, focusing on those specializing in adolescent addiction and mental health issues.
  2. Consult professionals: Speak with healthcare providers, therapists, or school counselors to gather recommendations and referrals.
  3. Assess needs and preferences: Consider the individual needs and preferences of the teenager, such as the level of care required (outpatient vs. inpatient), the type of therapy or treatment approach, and any co-occurring mental health conditions.
  4. Visit facilities and meet staff: Tour potential treatment facilities and meet with the staff to ensure a comfortable and supportive environment.
  5. Involve the teenager: Include the teenager in the decision-making process and encourage open communication about their concerns and preferences.
What is the role of therapy and counseling in the recovery process?
  1. Identifying triggers: Therapy can help individuals identify triggers and situations that may lead to substance use or suicidal thoughts, and develop strategies to cope with or avoid these triggers.
  2. Developing coping skills: Counseling can also teach individuals healthy coping mechanisms, such as stress management, problem-solving, and emotion regulation, to replace maladaptive behaviors.
  3. Addressing underlying issues: Therapists can help individuals explore and address underlying issues that contribute to addiction or suicidal behavior, such as past trauma, family dynamics, or mental health conditions.
  4. Building support networks: Counseling may involve connecting individuals with peer support groups or other resources to reinforce recovery and provide ongoing support.
  5. Relapse prevention: Therapists work with individuals to develop relapse prevention plans, which can help maintain long-term sobriety and mental wellness.

Legal and Policy Considerations

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.

How do laws and policies related to cannabis use affect young adults and their mental health?
  • Increased accessibility: The expansion of cannabis access to larger proportions of the US population, including the legalization of medical and recreational use in many states, may increase the availability of cannabis to young adults [1].
  • Normalization of use: The growing acceptance of cannabis use in society may lead to the normalization of its consumption, potentially influencing young adults’ attitudes and perceptions of the risks associated with its use [1].
  • Public health approach: Some policies aim to minimize harm to the public through effective prevention education, protection of clean indoor air, prevention of impaired driving, promotion of health equity, and investment in public health and safety programs [2]. These policies may help reduce the negative impact of cannabis use on young adults’ mental health.
  • Age restrictions: Most cannabis legislation includes age restrictions, prohibiting the possession or use of non-medical cannabis for individuals under 21 years of age [7]. These restrictions aim to protect young adults from potential mental health risks associated with cannabis use, especially when that use happens as their brains are still maturing.
How can parents stay informed about changes in cannabis legislation and policies that may impact their teenagers?
  • Follow news sources: Regularly check local, state, and national news sources for updates on changes in cannabis legislation and policies. This will help parents stay informed about the evolving legal landscape surrounding cannabis use.
  • Visit government websites: Government websites often provide information about current laws and regulations related to cannabis use. For example, the New Jersey Department of Health provides resources on cannabis laws in the state [6].
  • Engage with local organizations: Participate in community events or join local organizations that focus on substance abuse prevention, mental health, or public health. These organizations may offer resources and updates on cannabis legislation and policies.
  • Consult legal resources: Websites such as the American Bar Association provide articles and updates on legal developments related to cannabis, which can help parents understand the current legal context [5].
  • Monitor workplace policies: As cannabis laws evolve, workplace policies regarding cannabis use may also change [3]. Parents should be aware of these changes, as they may impact their teenagers’ understanding of the acceptability of cannabis use.
  • Learn about resources for help: Stay informed about resources available to help individuals experiencing mental health or substance use crises, such as hotlines and support organizations [4]. Familiarity with these resources will enable parents to provide assistance to their teenagers if needed.

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.

Online Resources for parents to help teenagers struggling with cannabis use and suicidal tendencies

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:

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for Teens

    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.

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

    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.

  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)

    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.

  • 9-8-8 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

    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.

  • Partnership to End Addiction

    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.

  • Mental Health America (MHA)

    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.

  • Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide

    Aims to reduce the number of youth suicides and attempted suicides by encouraging public awareness through the development and promotion of educational training programs.

  • The Trevor Project

    Provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ young people under 25.

  • Teen Line

    A confidential helpline for teenagers, offering peer-to-peer support through calls, text, and email.

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

    A mental health organization offering support, resources, and advocacy for individuals and families affected by mental illness.

  • Your Life, Your Voice

    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.

  • ReachOut

    A free, confidential online support service for teens and young adults facing mental health challenges, offering information, peer support, and referrals to professional help.


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