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Young Cannabis Consumers Experience More Suicidal Thoughts, Study Finds

Jun 24, 2021

Young Cannabis Consumers Experience More Suicidal Thoughts, Study Finds

Leo Bear-McGuinness
Science Writer & Editor

Suicidal thoughts are on the rise among young people in the US, and cannabis may have something to do with it, according to a new study.

Published in JAMA Network Open, the study found that, regardless of whether a person was depressed or not, both daily and non-daily cannabis use were associated with a higher prevalence of past-year suicidal ideation, planning, and attempts in young people. This prevalence was seen across sexes, but significantly more so in women.

The authors of the study hope their research can help inform new strategies for suicide prevention and intervention among such vulnerable people.


On the rise

To begin their research, the authors of the paper – who were from the US’s Nation Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) – accessed relevant survey data from 281,650 adults aged 18 to 34. All participant responses were originally given between 2008 to 2019 – a period that saw a substantial rise of legal recreational cannabis access in the US.

After analyzing these data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the NIDA researchers found that the prevalence of past-year suicidal ideation and suicide planning had increased for every examined sociodemographic group, and the prevalence of past-year suicide attempts had increased for most sociodemographic groups.

Around 12 percent of adults aged 18 to 23 had experienced past-year suicidal thoughts; this proportion dropped to 8.2 percent among those aged 24 to 29, and to 5.3 percent among those aged 30 to 34.

While a multitude of factors could be a behind this increase in suicidal behaviors, the researchers looked to see whether a person’s cannabis use had any effect. And it seems it does.

They found that, among those surveyed who hadn’t used cannabis or experienced major depression in the past year, 3.3 percent had experienced suicidal thoughts. But this proportion rose to 9.2 percent among those non-depressed individuals who consumed cannabis daily.

Depression, however, was a much greater factor for indicating suicidal behaviors. Among those who hadn’t used cannabis but who had experienced a major depressive episode in the past year, 35 percent had had suicidal thoughts. This proportion jumped to 52.6 percent among those daily cannabis consumers who had experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.

Still, the researchers say people who used cannabis non-daily (fewer than 300 days a year) were more likely to have suicidal ideation and to plan or attempt suicide than those who didn’t use the drug at all.

Furthermore, women who used cannabis at any level were more likely to have suicidal behaviors than men with the same levels of cannabis use. Among women who hadn’t experienced depression in the past year, the prevalence of suicidal ideation for those with and without a cannabis use disorder (a level of dependency on cannabis) was 13.9 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively. But among men, the same suicidal ideation prevalence was 9.9 percent and 3.0 percent for those with and without a cannabis use disorder, respectively.


Cannabis risks

While the study illustrates a link between cannabis use and suicidal behaviors, it does not prove a causal relationship, neither does it explain why cannabis-consuming women seem to experience such suicidal ideation more so than men.

The study’s authors also acknowledge that the research is limited by the kind of participants excluded from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, such as those experiencing homelessness or living in prisons.

The potency of cannabis consumed by participants was also not accounted for – a factor known to impact on the mental health of consumers.

But the research’s findings are still significant enough, the authors say, to warrant further studies to examine the relationship between cannabis use and suicidality.

“Suicide is a leading cause of death among young adults in the United States, and the findings of this study offer important information that may help us reduce this risk,” lead author Beth Han, an epidemiologist at NIDA, said in a statement.

“Depression and cannabis use disorder are treatable conditions, and cannabis use can be modified. Through better understanding the associations of different risk factors for suicidality, we hope to offer new targets for prevention and intervention in individuals that we know may be at high-risk. These findings also underscore the importance of tailoring interventions in a way that take sex and gender into account.”


Information on suicide prevention can be found here. Readers in the US can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).

 

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