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People with mental illness more than 7 times likelier to use pot, says study

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People living with mental illness are more than seven times likelier to use marijuana than people who don't have mental illness, according to Canadian researchers looking at data from the U.S.

A study appearing in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry looked at more than 43,000 people and found that more than 4 percent of mentally ill respondents reported using pot weekly, compared to 0.6 percent of people who didn't have mental illness.

That's not good, says Dr. Jodie Escobedo, the chief of addiction medicine at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center, a facility which treats a lot of South L.A. patients. Pot use can worsen symptoms of mental health conditions from mild depression to schizophrenia, she said.

"When it comes to patients who have mental illness and are using marijuana or any other mind-altering substance, a lot of times people will be under the impression that it will somehow be helpful or treat their symptoms, which is actually completely inaccurate," said Escobedo.

Still, she said it's "very, very common" for people to subscribe to that inaccuracy. Pot is a depressant—which means it's a horrible way to counter a condition like depression, said Escobedo.

"Comparatively, the rest of your life seems 'blah'," she said. "When you're smoking (pot), you feel great. Once the effect wears off, you feel even worse. So it's completely ineffective for that."

Escobedo said some people with mental illness use pot because they say it helps them sleep, but "there's a million others ways to work on trying to help somebody sleep." Using marijuana to do that simply reinforces using the drug in a "continuous cycle." With mental illness, she added, it's important to think in the long-term – and drugs like marijuana only address short-term mental symptoms.

"In the short-term when you're dumbed out or drugged up, you may not notice your symptoms," said Escobedo. "But in the long term, it always makes them worse. When people use drugs, they tend to get more focused on short term. So that value judgment between short term versus long term becomes heavily motivated by what's going to make me feel good in the short-term."

The Canadian study found that among mentally ill people who reported weekly marijuana use, rates were particularly high among those with bipolar disorder, personality disorders and substance use disorders.

A substance use disorder refers to an addiction to, dependence on or abuse of alcohol or drugs. The study's authors noted that 4 percent of people with mental illness have a pot use disorder, compared to 0.4 percent among those who don't have a mental illness.

Escobedo says it's difficult for her to treat patients who come to West L.A. Medical if they're using drugs regularly. 

"A normal part of an evaluation is to assess for substance abuse, and that was true even before this study," said Escobedo. "There is a lot of data that shows that you really can't make a good diagnosis with regard with mental illness until someone stops using."

The more severe a person's mental illness and the more powerful the drug of choice, said Escobedo, "the longer period you need them to be sober before you can make a diagnosis, design a good treatment program and pick a medication for them." 

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