Drugs and Alcohol (young people)

Drugs and mental health

Cannabis and mental health
Here, young people talk about their experiences of substance (drugs) misuse and mental health problems. When watching the videos below please bear in mind that the direct relationship between individual drugs and specific symptoms is not known.
Research shows that mental illness can develop in people who have misused substances such as alcohol, stimulants (e.g. ecstasy, cocaine) and depressants (e.g. cannabis), but it’s unclear whether drugs and alcohol cause mental illness themselves. For example, someone with an undiagnosed mental health problem might use drugs and alcohol to relieve their symptoms, but a substance misuse problem may develop from that. Research also suggests that the use of more than one substance or ‘polydrug use’ may be related to mental health problems.
If you’ve got an emotional or mental health problem it is not a good idea to use substances such as (non-prescribed) drugs and alcohol.  Young people we spoke to who’d smoked lots of cannabis to cope with traumatic life events, realise now that it didn’t help at all. All cannabis did was to temporarily block the emotions, which would come back when the effects wore off. Looking back, Chloe thinks it would have been better to try to sort out the emotions she felt after her father died, without the influence of weed or any other drugs.

Chloe smoked cannabis every day from the age of 12 to 16 and thinks it made her emotional problems worse.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
Did it make you feel better or?
No it most definitely never made me feel better. It was like, it was like a cycle really because obviously with smoking cannabis you get paranoid and I had body dismorphic disorder so I would wear three pairs of tracksuit bottoms underneath my jeans every single day come rain or shine, hot summer because I physically felt like I could not get out the door without it because I perceived my body to be looking in a different way than what it was.
I used to fill out my bra and I used to wear loads and loads of makeup. And I’m not embarrassed to say those things now. Before if anyone found out it would be the end of my world like I just wanted to shrivel up and die. And I did used to self-harm as well. But yeah I just perceived myself looking different to what I did.
I also have OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] so if I think about something I will obsess about it, cleaning. It’s still there now at the moment but I sort of trained myself to not do certain things. Like if something’s not on a perfect corner I’ll push it so that it’s not in a straight line and make myself walk past it, so that sort of thing. I did go to a lot of counselling and stuff as well for that. That’s come a long way. But it didn’t help me at all. I was very paranoid in school. I thought everyone knew what was going on with me. So no it did disconnect my feelings from my hurt from my dad dying and what I’d been through with him and that side of my life. But it made things a lot worse as well, definitely a lot worse than what they could have been if I had gone through that and found a solution to dealing with that through my natural state of mind then I would have benefited a lot more but I was dazed out to the world. So when I was not high the problems were all still there again. But I would say there was a rare time amongst, from when I was 12 to 16 that I wasn’t high. I was probably high every single day, yeah.
Some young people who were heavy cannabis smokers in their mid-teens (Harry, Craig, Tara, Sam and Chloe) said that they had experienced depression, low moods, anxiety and paranoia. Paranoia is a fairly common feeling associated with cannabis use. Ben felt paranoid on the occasions he smoked weed. Joe started using cannabis in the year after he moved out of his parents’ home, but stopped out of concern for his mental health.

A year after Joe started smoking cannabis regularly, he started to experience paranoia.

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Age at interview: 24
Sex: Male
Yeah, about that. Smoked quite a lot when I was nineteen, once I’d moved out of home and moved into a flat with, with friends, and yeah I could smoke in, well I was, I was smoking in my flat so I hadn’t done that at home, but there I felt I could so, probably had it more frequently and stopped smoking it when I was about nineteen, twenty suppose, yeah must have been about, just about twenty.
I started to get Paranoia and I was also smoking cigarettes and I wanted to stop smoking the cigarettes and the, I was getting, yeah I was getting kind of social Paranoia sometimes from, from smoking the, the marijuana, so...
So was that affecting your social life that’s what you have told me?
Yeah I think... yeah it probably was.
It didn’t stop me from interacting with them I’d still, yeah I’d still go out with them, or whatever, but I would, maybe, yeah we’d, we’d, if we were going out and we’d been drinking in my flat I’d maybe smoke a joint on the way out as well when we were walking to a club it wouldn’t stop me from, probably going out with them but yeah other, other times I’d, I’d say I got Paranoid about my, probably about my health, not social situations, I’d never had, I know there’s quite a lot of stigma attached to it with people being Paranoid about their surroundings which it wasn’t so much for me it was more about, my, like I overreacted to my health so if I got a sore chest I thought I was having like a heart attack yeah, or if I had a headache I thought I had something worse and I suppose it made me a bit of a hyper, hypochondriac but, socially was still fine with my friends, so I kind of wanted to, and I was aware of that so I wanted to stop smoking for that reason, and it took me a while, I had to, I found it difficult to stop when I was still smoking cigarettes so I stopped to, pretty much at the same time [em] which, took a while to, to be able to stop that but.
Yeah, so that was when I was about twenty that I, I stopped smoking, and stopped smoking the smoking the marijuana.
How easy or how difficult it was to, to stop?
It was mainly the smoking the cigarettes that I found the hard part, so I’d cut right back on, on the smoking smoking weed but, while I was still smoking cigarettes I’d sometimes think ‘oh instead of having a cigarette I’ll have a joint because there’s less tobacco in it’. I found it very difficult to, to stop smoking the weed but it, the, while I was still smoking the cigarettes there was always the temptation to smoke the weed and then once I did manage to, to stop smoking the cigarettes it’s easier just to stop smoking the weed altogether, which I wanted to do but at the same time, it was almost habit by then and I was probably, psychologically dependent on it, I wouldn’t say that I was physically addicted, I was to the cigarettes I’d say, but yeah but I’d, I stopped probably after about six months of starting to stop, that I’d try, trying to stop, it took me probably about six months to actually stop it now. 
Some frequent users weren’t convinced that using cannabis caused, or worsened, mental health problems. Raphael has never experienced paranoia and wondered whether it’s more likely to affect people who are already insecure.

Peter thinks that it's difficult to prove either way if cannabis causes schizophrenia.

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Male
Does your mum have an opinion about it?
Oh yeah. I think my mum she is what I’d call anti-cannabis. I think her opinion’s skewed slightly. You know like humans look for connections in everything. She had a brother who had mental health issues and he also was a cannabis user so she makes the assumption that those two things are linked.
Now I’m not a psychologist or I don’t do anything like that so I can’t say whether they are or they aren’t but I think it’s just as. I think it’s just as bad to make an assumption either way to just assume something like that whether, whether you can say or it isn’t because in the same light that one person could say perhaps my uncle could say well he smoked weed. He’s got a mental health issue or I could say, well I’m a productive member of society. I’ve got a good job. I smoke weed. You know like those kind of arguments no one can ever win them.
But do you have any concerns about kind of the possibility of being sort of related?
No? Have you sort of read about the possible connection between?
Yeah I mean. I mean yeah I’ve read up on. I know that there’s. I know that... a person who has schizophrenia or psychosis is more likely statistically to be a cannabis user. I also know of, there’s been a study that shows perhaps that long term use throughout adolescence can have an effect which. I did start using in adolescence. I wouldn’t call it long term heavy use during adolescence. I think generally it’s difficult to prove either way.
It’s difficult to prove either way as far as whether someone actually, whether that’s the cause because just because something proceeds another it doesn’t mean that it caused it. But I think if I ever had any doubt in my mind that I thought things weren’t right in my brain then perhaps it might be the first thing I’d look at. But I’m [phew] I don’t know, I’m a pretty stable guy.
I do go to Amsterdam once or twice a year to enjoy cannabis which is a bit of time away from my son with just me and whatever friends that I go there with.
So you go with your friends?
Yeah, yeah.
That’s maybe like once or twice a year we do that for like a day or two.
So how do you feel sort of when you are there?
I get. You know like because don’t get me wrong. I think there can be anxiety occasionally with marihuana use. And occasionally I get anxious over there as opposed to here because you’re doing it out in the open.

Yeah as opposed to here because obviously it’s so culturally engrained in me in this country that I must hide this. I don’t want people to see this. You know it’s not something that you do in public. It’s not really socially accepted here. So then to go into a country where it is socially accepted to an extent it’s, it’s an odd feeling. I mean actually the last time I was there I was quite paranoid because I was like. I don’t know why, just because it’s so out in the open I just like. I mean I’m sure if I was there for a week, I’ve only ever been for a few days, I mean I’m not, in fact I’ve not had that every time I’ve gone. It’s only happened twice where I’ve got a bit like anxious in one coffee shop and then the last time I went as well. But it’

Those who already had mental health problems found that even occasional use of cannabis could cause negative effects.

Alex received treatment for anxiety in his teens and felt very paranoid, on one occasion, after a few puffs on a joint. He avoids using cannabis now.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
Last time we talked you mentioned something about the effect of marijuana that you did not like? Can you tell me more about that?
I think, I think that might have something to do with the fact that, the sort of mental state I was in at the time sort of struggling with anxiety issues and stuff. But I mean I had smoked marijuana before this occasion where I reacted badly to it and, you know, hadn’t had, didn’t have a particularly strong effect on me. But there was this one time I think I was 15 and or 16 in sort of [Name] Park someone was passing around a joint and, you know, I had a couple of draws on it and I got intensely sort of very intensely paranoid and like sort of to the point where I couldn’t really speak and I was sick and I didn’t. Sort of since then I remember sort of going home and sort of having sort of mental battle with myself or just feeling very intensely sort of paranoid and worried. And sort of since then I was always much more cautious about smoking marijuana and it’s something that I sort of don’t really do now.
And I know people who have, you know, have had similar experiences with marijuana, sort of had similar effects on them.

Tara thinks that cannabis and personal problems contributed to her depression and self-harm. She thinks cannabis can be a dangerous drug.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
So based on this experience I mean, how much do you think it has to do with cannabis smoking; your depression, your self-harming?
I think it had a major part in it, not, not completely all of it because there were issues from school, my family, my friends, but [eh] [laughs] smoking drugs yeah, had a major part of my depression which I will carry with me probably throughout my life I still have, I still have spells of depression and so it’s just part of me and I try and deal with it as best I can.
So for you cannabis had a major impact?
..on your health, on your...
...mental health?
Yeah it’s, very [laughs] dangerous compared to [sighs] it’s, what is it now, a class B? But it is, it can mess you up worse than lots of other things, okay you pop a few pills you may die instantly, they could be very dangerous but what about smoking cannabis for a long time and then you just carry it with the rest of your life, you’ve just got to deal with it for the rest of your life and no, it’s not nice [laughs]. 

Craig has experimented with quite a few illegal drugs but thinks his paranoia is mostly due to smoking cannabis.

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Male
When you started taking drugs what type of drugs?
It was cannabis.
Cannabis to start with yes.
How did you obtain it?
Literally I started smoking cigarettes when I was about 14, 13/14. So it was just a natural thing for me and, you know, we were just sat in a group and a spliff was passed around. So of course it got to me and I thought, ‘Why not. You only live once.’ Yeah so it was just, it was mates and then as I started liking it more and more I started buying it myself and I got people’s numbers off of my friends who were able to get it or at parties and stuff like that.
Have you tried any other drugs?
Yes I have. I’ve tried cocaine. I was on cocaine for quite a while it was probably about two or three months and it got so bad that I actually, a couple of times felt withdrawal when I was at work and actually did a couple of lines at work. I’ve also done hash or hashish, whatever you want to call it, magic mushrooms, ketamine, MDMA or ‘mandy’ whatever you want to call it, speed, ecstasy. I’ve done quite a few. Looking back it seemed like a good idea at the time but now it’s just, it’s not, it’s not the best of ideas. And I do regret, I do regret getting deeply involved with them. I don’t regret trying them because I believe life’s all about experimentation. It’s ok if you can keep control but the second you start losing it you really need to get help and I didn’t.
I mean I from, I mean from chronic use of cannabis I have developed paranoia. And you know I do, I do still occasionally smoke it but not on the scale that I was back then.
How do you know that you, it was through smoking cannabis that you developed that?
Well I suppose everybody was telling me it is. So I did a bit of looking into it and found out that it was. But I think it accelerated. I was already a little bit paranoid anyway through school and that but I think that kind of accelerated it.
Can you tell me more about it? I mean the symptoms and how you felt and...?
Oh. Say walking, say walking home, say you pass a group of people or you know, young kids. It’s kind of really, even when you’ve passed them your ears are up and alert listening about or, you know, looking around to see in the shadows kind of thing because you don’t know what’s around the next corner so your imagination runs overtime. You go down the road thought...
How long after you started smoking cannabis you...?
A few years
A few years?
It was a few years after I started smoking cannabis I became paranoid. 
Use of more than one drug (polydrug use) and mental health
Research suggests that using two or more substances or ‘polydrug use’ is connected with mental health problems. As well as cannabis, some young people (like Craig, above) experimented with other street drugs like ecstasy/MDMA, cocaine and ketamine.
For some young people, the use of a stronger form of cannabis (skunk) and the regular mixing of illegal drugs over a long period of time seems to have resulted in a longer lasting mental health problem. Harry used to smoke cannabis and mix illegal substances regularly over a period of years. His mental health got progressively worse and he was eventually diagnosed with cannabis-induced psychosis. Sam was a long-term, heavy user of skunk, crack cocaine, acid, ecstasy, ketamine and other drugs. His mental health declined quite rapidly but he continued to use weed, drink alcohol and take ‘other pills’. He described himself as having been someone with no emotions, no feelings and just being exhausted to the point of hardly being able to function.

Some synthetic drugs called synthetic cannabinoids act like cannabis but are more potent than natural cannabis. For more information about the effects and risks of synthetic cannabinoids see the Frank website.
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Harry was diagnosed with cannabis-induced psychosis and put on medication. At times he felt so bad that he thought about suicide.

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Sex: Male

I was feeling like I couldn’t cope with being like talking to people I mean I’d walk along a corridor like in halls and say if there was someone walking towards you or towards me I mean, normally it would just be okay there’s a person walking towards me I’d say, smile or be hello if I knew them or like just stop and chat if I knew them like a bit better and that’ll be it, but in that state of mind I was as they were getting closer and closer to me I’d be dreading the conversation that I was about to have with them and I’d think please don’t talk to me, please don’t talk to me and going from like so sociable like always being like really like involved in like sort of going out and chatting and meeting new people  to suddenly like not be able to communicate almost forgetting how to talk to people and being so nervous. I’d, like still so paranoid and just like all this built up, built up, built up and then like I say my mind was just racing constantly like thoughts flying around like daming thoughts about myself or sort of thinking like what have I done and that’s the only point in my life where I thought “Okay this is it, you’ve completely done it, you’ve completely ruined yourself like what have you done” and like and this was like quite sad to say like why, this was the only time I actually thought about like sort of, sort of topping myself and it had like got to that stage where I was like I can’t live the rest of my life like this, this I can’t actually like go through the rest of my life and I can’t see a way out of it.


Sam was on antidepressants but continued using skunk and other drugs. (Played by an actor)

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Male
Well he was saying that I, it appears that I’m depressed and like. And that I, this visit to the GP I was only telling him about the cannabis and the ecstasy. I wasn’t saying about the acid or some of the other things that I was [ha] doing. And at that point I was doing anything. I wasn’t using some, actually yeah that’s not true. I had at that point smoked crack but I wasn’t using that actually at the flat and I hadn’t done that regularly. That was a one-off thing I done with my mate and actually I was a lot younger when I done that. But like yeah the doctor. I told the doctor some of it. He was like, you know, ‘You’ve obviously had something wrong with you’. He wrote me off work. That’s what I wanted. I got three months off work. I had these antidepressants. So I started taking them and doing my drugs. I’d take them regularly and he was trying me on different ones and it got to the point that I couldn’t leave the flat. I was, I felt like I was a goldfish in a bowl like. And I tried to get out the door and I couldn’t physically like. I had no food and the shop was just over the road because I lived right in the centre of everything. So all I had to do was make it across that road. Get some food and come back in and I couldn’t do it.
In the end my friend, one of my friend’s at the time he had to bring me food from his house. He used to steal it and bring it to me so I would eat for the two months that I was off work because I wouldn’t go out.
Eventually once I started going back to work I still was getting really down. I was still getting depressed. I thought I was depressed I’d go up to the pub and I’d talk to people and tell them how depressed I was and how shit my life is. But then I’d go out and smoke a load of weed and drinking a load of beer and that. And, you know it got to the point that I was crying. I was just at the pub crying at people just saying how shit my life is. I want to die, everything is fucking crap like, you know what I mean. What’s the point in it? Still I was smoking weed, drinking, doing pills. You know because that was fine, life was fine once I had a smoke. I’d just sit there quiet just like, you know. But what I think happened is I started. Although I had been although I’d not realised very introverted for, when I was smoking weed I thought a lot of the time I was an extrovert and I was joining in. But sometimes I know I spoke to people, sometimes people would look in my eyes and there’d be nothing there. And I’d be just zonked I’d like and I’d have no feelings, no emotions at all. I’d just, I’d taken a lot out of myself.
So yeah, basically I started to cut down on weed thinking, ‘This has got to be it, man. This skunk is the problem’. Because I’d like, I’d long surpassed smoking dirt but by then it was skunk all the time.

And that, the whole thing was to me, this is my life, you know what I mean. But at the same time it was eating away at me and they were, it was eating away at me.  

Mental health problems that develop in people who misuse alcohol or drugs may disappear if they stop taking drugs and/or alcohol for a long period of time. Reducing use of drugs and alcohol may also help improve mental health.

Last reviewed July 2018.
Last updated: July 2018.
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