Pre-teens, teens, and young adults who use cannabis could be at higher risk of having suicidal thoughts.
Both suicidality and cannabis use among U.S. adults has been on the rise for the past decade. According to recently released U.S. national drug survey data, “Young adults who use cannabis, either sporadically, daily, or those who have cannabis use disorder, have a significantly increased risk for suicidal thoughts and actions.” The data indicated that the risks of use are greater for women than men.
“We cannot establish that cannabis use caused increased suicidality,” Nora Volkow, MD, director, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said. “However, it is likely that these two factors influence one another bidirectionally, meaning people with suicidal thinking might be more vulnerable to cannabis use to self-medicate their distress, and cannabis use may trigger negative moods and suicidal thinking in some people.”
The researchers issued a survey over a month-long span of July to August 2020 to high school seniors. They were able to complete this outside of school. The survey was a follow up measure to the standard Monitoring the Future (MTF) spring survey issued by the University of Michigan, which gathered responses between February and March 2020. However, the initial survey was halted due to school closures. Of “the 3,770 12th graders” who responded, “582 submitted a follow-up survey in the summer,” according to the team.
“Last year brought dramatic changes to adolescents’ lives, as many teens remained home with parents and other family members full time,” Volkow said. “It is striking that despite this monumental shift and teens’ perceived decreases in availability of marijuana and alcohol, usage rates held steady for these substances. This indicates that teens were able to obtain them despite barriers caused by the pandemic and despite not being of age to legally purchase them.” She added, “It is also possible that these factors are not causally linked to one another at all but rather reflect the common and related risk factors underlying both suicidality and substance use. For instance, one’s genetics may put them at a higher risk for both suicide and for using marijuana.”
Ohio State behavioral scientist Cynthia Fontanella works with young people with mood disorders and was recently involved in a separate study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, which detailed findings from a review of 205,000 Ohio Medicaid claims linked with death certificates for young people 10 to 24. The researchers found those in this population who had mood disorders and used marijuana were “at a higher risk for self-harm and death by all causes.”
“We noticed a high prevalence of cannabis use and cannabis use disorders in this population. And we were curious about what the negative effects of that was on their trajectory for mood disorders,” Fontanella explained.
Pre-pandemic, according to the NIDA and MIF survey, “23% of students said they had used marijuana in the past 30 days, compared to 20% during the pandemic.” For alcohol, “17% reported binge drinking in the past two weeks pre-pandemic, compared to 13% during the pandemic.”
“These findings suggest that reducing adolescent substance use through attempts to restrict supply alone would be a difficult undertaking,” said Richard A. Miech, Ph.D., lead author and team lead of the MIF study. “The best strategy is likely to be one that combines approaches to limit the supply of these substances with efforts to decrease demand, through educational and public health campaigns.”