A recent study by a Grand Rapids physician found that the use of e-cigarettes to vape tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) places people at a significantly increased risk for the development of psychotic disorders.
“Research has previously shown that individuals who consume THC are three times as likely as those who do not to develop a psychotic disorder,” said Dr. Chad Percifield, author of the study. “Vaping solutions increase this risk more than sixfold due to the potency of the vaping solution, which on average contains 52% THC versus the 13% THC contained in the marijuana flower.”
The increased risk of psychosis is especially noteworthy when considering trends in e-cigarette use among adolescents.
The use of modified electronic cigarettes and unregulated black-market devices to vape THC, the mind-altering (i.e. psychoactive) compound in marijuana, has been increasing in recent years.
This is because vaping THC is inconspicuous, odorless and more convenient when compared to traditional means of smoking THC.
“It’s a growing problem,” Percifield said. “In 2019, 46% of high school seniors reported vaping of some kind, up from 34% in 2016. More significantly, 21% of those surveyed in 2019 stated they vape marijuana, more than doubling the figure from a similar 2017 survey. Of all those who vape, over 60% said they do it to experiment.”
Percifield’s research findings note that the known impact of THC consumption on development of psychosis, the high potency of THC vaping solutions compounded with the increased use of e-cigarettes among adolescents place that population at an increasing risk of psychiatric illness.
His report presents the case of a 20-year-old woman with a history of major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe and heavy THC use by vaping who had two inpatient treatments separated by 2 weeks. Her first admission was for suicidal ideation and was preceded by ICU treatment for vaping-related lung injury. Her second admission followed a suicide attempt by several methods including stabbing, electrocution and ingestion. The patient was noted to be exhibiting psychotic features during her second admission. The patient was stabilized on quetiapine 600 mg nightly, fluoxetine 60 mg daily and gabapentin 100 mg daily prn anxiety and discharged home.
There is little research regarding mental health consequences of vaping THC, but considering the high potency of vaping solutions, an increased risk of THC-induced psychosis and schizophrenia spectrum disorders should be considered, according to Percifield.
His findings back up research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The human brain continues to develop from before birth into the mid-20s and is vulnerable to the effects of addictive substances. Frequent marijuana use during adolescence increases the risk for and early onset of psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, according to the CDC.
The risk for psychotic disorders increases with frequency of use and potency of the marijuana product, according to a recent Surgeon General’s Advisory: “Marijuana Use and the Developing Brain”.
The amount of drug used, the age at first use and genetic vulnerability have all been shown to influence this relationship. The strongest evidence to date concerns links between marijuana use and psychiatric disorders in those with a preexisting genetic or other vulnerability, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Research shows that many adolescents vape to experiment – just to try it out. Others report they vape because it tastes good. It’s critically important; however, that we increase awareness that vaping can have long-lasting effects on both physical and mental health,” Percifield added. “Adolescents who vape, especially if vaping marijuana, are placing themselves at an exponentially increased risk of developing a psychotic disorder, and that can have a lifelong impact.”
So, what is psychosis?
Most people think of psychosis as a break with reality. In a way it is.
Psychosis is a condition that affects the way your brain processes information and it causes you to lose touch with reality. It can make it difficult for people to recognize what is real and what isn’t, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Psychosis is a symptom, not an illness, and it is more common than you may think. As many as 3 in 100 people will have an episode at some point in their lives. Psychosis includes a range of symptoms but typically involves one of these two major experiences, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Hallucinations are seeing, hearing or feeling things that aren’t there, such as the following:
• Hearing voices (auditory hallucinations).
• Strange sensations or unexplainable feelings.
• Seeing glimpses of objects or people that are not there or distortions.
Delusions are strong beliefs that are not consistent with the person’s culture, are unlikely to be true and may seem irrational to others, such as the following:
• Believing external forces are controlling thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
• Believing that trivial remarks, events or objects have personal meaning or significance.
• Thinking you have special powers, are on a special mission or even that you are God.
Psychosis is not always permanent.
Psychosis can be treated and early treatment increases the chance of a successful recovery; studies have shown that it is common for a person to have symptoms for more than a year before receiving treatment. Reducing this duration of untreated psychosis is crucial because early treatment often equals a better recovery. Traditional treatment involves psychotherapy and medication, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Psychosis can be related to several mental conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder and substance use disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.