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How Marijuana Impacts Our Mental Health

Embark Behavioral Health
March 24, 2020

The legalization of marijuana in so many states has made the drug incredibly popular and even more accessible. There are so many different ways to ingest it, and it has become very normalized. However, we forget that marijuana is still illegal for anyone under the age of 21. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the most important reasons is how marijuana impacts our minds and our mental health, especially in adolescence.

The Adolescent Brain

Most of us are aware that a child’s brain is still developing and that we need to take extra care to protect it. But after age 12 or so, that’s done, right? I mean, if we have the cognitive ability to learn to drive a car, then our brain is good, right? That is actually false. The adolescent brain is still actively developing into our early to mid-20’s. There are crucial connections still being formed.

Within the adolescent brain, the part that makes decisions and the part that regulates emotions are not yet fully connected. This is why we are often more impulsive and emotional in adolescence, and why we sometimes make decisions that don’t seem as wise as we might make when we are adults. Allowing our brain to finish making these connections is vital going forward as adults. We need to safeguard our brains as adolescents just as much as we do in childhood.

Prevalence of Cannabis

Cannabis is everywhere now. Even in states where it is still not legal, there is more accessibility than ever. One study surveyed high school aged students and determined that marijuana is the second-most used substance by high school students, with 23 percent of high school seniors reporting that they had used the drug in the last month. Yet how many of these students have any idea what marijuana can do to our minds?

Our brains can be altered by even recreational use of cannabis. However, the more we use, the more devastating the changes can be. Marijuana can also alter our mood and cause depression or make us anxious, irrational, or angry.

Innocence Lost

When we use marijuana before our brains are fully developed, there can be significant and long-term damage. Some damage can be reversed if we abstain from marijuana long-term, but there are still other long-term consequences for us. One of the most significant impacts of marijuana on our brains is that those connections that are supposed to be forming between our decision-making and emotional parts of our brains do not form. This is not something that can be corrected. If our brains don’t make those connections now, they won’t be made.

This drug has a stigma that it is relatively harmless, but in fact, the opposite is true, particularly in adolescence. Again, the increasing number of places where it is legal makes it more accessible, but without warning. Just because it is not legal for teens, does not mean that it is unnecessary to have campaigns to educate about the irreversible harm that can come from marijuana use. We are allowing a harmful drug to run rampant while taking both the innocence and the minds of our adolescents without warning.

Literally Mind-Altering

In addition to prohibiting important connections in our minds, marijuana impacts our minds negatively in many ways. According to one study, adolescent marijuana users exhibited worse attention, learning, and memory functions after using the drug. Additionally, their executive functioning was also worse. Even after taking a break from marijuana for a month, patients within the study exhibited slower processing speed, as well as worse attention, verbal learning, memory, and sequencing abilities.

Using various types of brain imaging, the study also showed a decrease in grey matter in adolescents who used marijuana as compared to those who didn’t. Literally, it alters our brains in very physical and measurable ways. As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, they found that our overall cognitive and behavioral functioning is considerably lowered. Even our IQs are lowered with prolonged use. 

Losing My Mind 

Using marijuana as an adolescent can make us feel like we are losing our minds. Because we literally are. Very little of this damage is reversible. To lose the needed connections, actual grey matter, some of our cognitive and behavioral functioning, some of our language, verbal, and memory skills, as well as impacting our executive function and lowering our IQ seems like a really heavy risk that teens may not know they are taking.

The earlier we start using marijuana, the greater the consequences. These are not well-publicized findings. Just because the drug is not legal until age 21 does not mean that adolescents aren’t using it. If more adolescents knew how devastating and long-term the damage can be to our minds, perhaps some would abstain.

Our brains are still forming in adolescence. The accessibility of marijuana and the many forms it is available in makes for the perfect storm… against our brains. We stand to lose so much. Our brains are generally pretty resilient, but studies show that the damage marijuana causes is not something we can heal from. We can suffer with the physiological changes, and we can be impacted by the mood changes, too. We need to be sure that we know the risks for our minds before we ingest any marijuana.

Marijuana can harm your mental health. If you think you may be addicted, call Embark Behavioral Health 1-855-809-0409 today. Your brain matters. 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling.