Vaping Cannabis and Self-Reported Anxiety and Depression Go Hand-in-Hand
Cannabis products, including vaporizer liquids that contain THC (the mind-altering chemical in cannabis), are often marketed to young people as a way to curb anxiety and depression. However, recent surveys of young adults and adolescents who vape THC show that cannabis does very little, if anything, to help these users address their unwanted emotions. Further, vaping cannabis exposes young people to many adverse side effects and serious physical and mental health risks.
Findings Suggest Cannabis Isn’t Helping Young Americans Overcome Anxiety and Depression
A recent paper published in the 2023 series for the American Heart Association Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Scientific Sessions opened with this critical finding, “A study of more than 2,500 people ages 13–24 found that nicotine-only vapers, THC-only vapers, and dual vapers (of nicotine and THC) were more likely to report anxiety symptoms, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thoughts when compared with their peers who did not use electronic cigarettes or vape THC.” That finding is remarkable, considering users surveyed said anxiety and depression drove them to use cannabis in the first place.
The paper, titled Depression & anxiety symptoms linked to vaping nicotine and THC in teens and young adults, observed that anxiety symptoms were reported among 60% of people surveyed who use cannabis, compared to 40% of people surveyed who did not use cannabis. Similarly, 50% of survey respondents who used cannabis said they struggled with depression, compared to 20% of survey respondents who did not use cannabis.
For a more detailed look at the findings, the research showed:
- Approximately 70% of the survey respondents who vaped cannabis reported experiencing anxiety symptoms within the past week, including worries, flashbacks, panic attacks, and situational anxieties.
- Over half of the survey respondents who used THC products said they struggled with symptoms of depression, including experiencing difficulty engaging in or being interested in activities that they normally enjoyed.
- More than 50% of people who vaped cannabis reported having suicidal thoughts within the past 12 months, compared to only one-third of survey respondents who did not use cannabis.
- About half of the survey respondents who used cannabis said they started vaping THC and currently vaped THC to relieve anxiety symptoms. Yet, they did not report that cannabis use was helping reduce anxiety. Conversely, they reported ongoing struggles with anxiety.
- About one-third of survey respondents who used cannabis said they started using the drug to help cope with depression. These individuals reported the same or similar depression levels as when they started using cannabis.
Study co-author Joy Hart, Ph. D., a professor of communication at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, was hesitant to say the findings show that cannabis caused anxiety and depression. However, Dr. Hart did discuss the addiction risk factors involved. “Dual [cannabis and nicotine] use may either compound the addictive nature of vaping or attract people who are more prone to addiction, as well as have an impact on symptoms of depression,” said Hart. “These findings suggest the importance of addressing the use of THC and the need for building resilience and coping skills for teens and young adults.” Given a lack of conclusive evidence tying cannabis use to reductions in anxiety and depression—and a clear presence of harmful side effects—young people should be given healthier alternatives for improving their mental health.
The study authors concluded that public health efforts should provide young people with healthier ways of coping with unwanted and harmful emotions. “When better coping skills are developed, there may be fewer temptations to try to manage anxiety symptoms and similar mental health challenges through vaping,” said Rose Marie Robertson, M.D., FAHA, and senior author of the study. “Increased priority on more positive behaviors to alleviate tension and manage anxiety symptoms may reduce the likelihood of vaping, possible addiction, and the increased risk of negative health outcomes.” Regarding those negative health outcomes, while the study did not prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between cannabis use and feelings of anxiety and depression in users, there are known and proven harmful side effects of using cannabis.
What We Know About How Cannabis Harms the Body and Mind
Cannabis has many short-term and long-term effects on users’ physical, mental, and emotional health. In the short term, cannabis can cause:
- Altered senses and perceptions
- Altered understanding of the passage of time
- Changes in mood, sometimes rapidly and dramatically
- Impaired body movement, difficulty controlling basic motor function
- Difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, difficulty with short and long-term memory
- Hallucinations, delusions, and psychosis (especially and primarily when taken in high doses)
Some long-term effects of cannabis include a reduction in cognitive function, especially in younger users. When people use cannabis in their youth, research suggests doing so may stunt their cognitive function and reduce IQ by up to eight points. Critically, there is no indication that IQ points return after one ceases using cannabis. Research also indicates the rising THC levels in today’s cannabis directly increase the degree of long-term harm users experience.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also list several harmful health effects of using cannabis, like:
- About one in ten cannabis users become addicted, and one in six if they start using before 18.
- Cannabis use slows reaction time, affecting one’s ability to make decisions while driving.
- Cannabis directly affects the areas of the brain responsible for memory, learning, and attention.
- Inhaling cannabis can increase the risk of respiratory issues like bronchitis, cough, and phlegm production.
- Cannabis users are more likely than nonusers to develop chronic mental disorders, including schizophrenia.
- The compounds in cannabis can affect the circulatory system, increasing the risk of heart attacks and stroke.
Addiction Treatment Can Help Those Who Cannot Stop Using Cannabis on Their Own
Given that using cannabis poses serious physical and mental harm risks and is not a clear remedy for anxiety or depression, young people should be encouraged to seek professional help and healthier remedies for what ails them. If you know someone who is already using cannabis and who cannot stop using it on their own, please help them find and enter a qualified residential drug treatment center as soon as possible.
- AMA. “Depression & anxiety symptoms linked to vaping nicotine and THC in teens and young adults.” American Heart Association, 2023. newsroom.heart.org
- NIDA. “Cannabis (Marijuana) DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019. nida.nih.gov
- CDC. “Marijuana Health Effects.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023. cdc.gov