True Story of Cannabis-Induced Schizophrenia / Psychosis — (Nationwide News Pty Limited Sunday Mail)

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Source: Nationwide News Pty Limited Sunday Mail (Queensland, Australia)

Jan 22, 2005

BYLINE: Clare Campbell

HEADLINE: My son Liam was a brilliant student, but his first puff of cannabis was the start of a terrifying descent into depression and paranoia that cost his life

Schizophrenia Daily News Blog: True Story of Cannabis-Induced Schizophrenia / Psychosis

The following is a true story, appearing in the Nationwide News Pty Limited Sunday Mail (Queensland, Australia).

It is written by a mother who lost her son to (what she believes was) drug-induced schizophrenia. Her story is a frightening and sad reminder of what scientific studies are revealing to us – that recreational drug use significantly increases the risk of developing schizophrenia and suffering dire health consequences.

The most relevant portions of the story are excerpted below.

As a child, Liam had been bright, gifted and extremely energetic.   Looking back I would say that he always found it difficult to  communicate his feelings, and even when obviously distressed would tell me he was “fine”. At the time I just thought this was a typical male reluctance to reveal his emotions.

As his mother, my instinct tells me he would eventually have worked  these through by himself if only he had never touched drugs. From the moment he smoked his first joint of cannabis to try to make himself feel better, Liam had started on a road that would lead him to severe mental disturbance.

Although by nature a shy boy, Liam made several lasting friendships at the local school he attended. He did brilliantly academically. Graham and I knew Liam found his first year at university difficult, although he rarely confided in anyone. He told me he hated his first lodgings.

I phoned a student counsellor, who went to see Liam, but our son simply told him he was fine. Liam later said that he had some of the best, and the worst, times of his life at university. But it was during the beginning of his second year that I discovered, to my horror, how he was using cannabis to try to solve his confidence problems.

I was appalled when he told me. Liam had always seemed sensible and I had trusted him not to do anything stupid. How could he behave like this? I know that thousands of students go out every weekend and use drugs, but knowing how highly-strung Liam was, I was terrified of the effect cannabis might have on him.

I had read about use of the drug being linked to psychosis and felt  desperately afraid for him. What would these drugs do to his health and his future? I only hoped these feelings of low self-worth would pass, but I don’t believe Liam ever really got over his lack of self-esteem, even though he was tall, good-looking, and very clever. He had everything to live for if only he’d known it.

His father and I were out of our minds with worry. If he had been defiant or arrogant about his drug-taking, we could have shouted and threatened him. But Liam wasn’t like that at all. All we saw was an
unhappy, disturbed boy who needed our help as he had never done before

We realised he was in danger both of becoming dependent and psychiatrically disturbed by the drugs.  Yet all the time Liam claimed that he was only doing it to “make himself feel better”. I tried my best to persuade him to see the counsellor — but he was deeply suspicious of any attempts to help him and hated talking about himself or his feelings to anyone.

In 2000, he finally admitted to us that his use of cannabis and ecstasy had triggered a deep depression — ironically the very thing he had been battling all along. I said I’d do all I could to help him. At my request, Liam went to see our family GP and was prescribed an antidepressant. For a few months I hoped Liam might be getting better, but then in early 2001 I made a horrifying discovery. Liam had been ordering prescription-only medications over the Internet and using them in combination with cannabis and ecstasy.

Later I found out from the local pharmacist that hundreds, if not thousands, of unsolicited e-mails offering on-line drugs are sent to Internet users all over the world every day.

He didn’t even attempt to deny what he had been doing, but broke down, telling me over and over how sorry he was, and repeating: “I’m evil, you don’t really know me, Mum.” When I asked about the prescription drugs, he told me Valium was used to soften the come-down after taking ecstasy. I was appalled and, as any parent would be, dreadfully frightened that my son’s life was out of control. I kept thinking: “If only he had never started smoking cannabis, none of this would be happening.”

It seemed so obvious that it had led him on to more serious drugs.  From then on, I was constantly trying to prevent Liam’s access to drugs. Sometimes I would go through his room and get rid of them. On one occasion I threw away as many as 200 Valium tablets. After confiding in both my local pharmacist and our GP, I started handing any drugs I found to them. I couldn’t understand how it could be possible young, vulnerable people could obtain prescription-only drugs online. Surely it was illegal?

I was beside myself with worry and stress, and made sure I had the  chance to intercept the mail before Liam got it.  Looking back, I wonder how I managed to stay sane.

Partly as a result of my increasing stress about Liam, as well as the fact that I was also caring for my elderly mother, my husband Graham and I separated in May 2001. We remained loving friends, but simply had no reserves of energy left to put into our own relationship.

Liam continued to live with his father while Ros came with me. I  noticed that Liam did not show any emotion at this time, either over our separation, or my mother’s death shortly afterwards. During the following year, Liam continued to be very unstable. I knew he was still experimenting with drugs obtained over the Internet, and he admitted that he was still using cannabis “occasionally”.

Yet all the time he claimed not to be doing this for thrills, but  simply to feel better about himself. I asked him what we could do to  help. He decided he wanted to live on his own and rented a unit close to his father and me. But he continued to act in a very frightening way.

In June 2002, he came to my house in a highly disturbed and paranoid state. Terrified, I took him to the local hospital, where he was eventually seen by the duty psychiatrist. An out-patient appointment was made for a few weeks later.

But Liam’s behaviour was deteriorating too rapidly for this to be of use. He barricaded himself into his room so that communication became impossible. It was agonising to see my brilliant child’s mind unravelling before my eyes.

Two weeks later, I had a phone call from Graham to say Liam had been taken to hospital after running in front of a bus. I felt almost faint with relief when he said Liam had not been hurt.

I went straight to the hospital, where the doctor on duty  administered an anti-psychotic drug. Liam suddenly showed a dramatic  improvement, proving the doctor’s diagnosis of a drug-induced psychosis to be correct. Yet a urine test showed he had taken only six codeine tablets.

When I talked to a drugs helpline, I discovered that psychosis does not have to be the result of drugs present in the body, but may be the result of drug abuse from years earlier. This is particularly linked with the long-term use of cannabis.

Recent medical research has established a strong link between the use of cannabis and the development of psychosis and schizophrenia in vulnerable young people. Scientists say that by disrupting the delicate chemical balance of the brain, the drug causes changes leading to long-term mental illness.

I kept Liam with me as much as possible for six weeks after that.

He seemed to be improving steadily, and appeared brighter and more optimistic about the future. I even persuaded him to see a counsellor. But a diary he kept shows his mood swings: “Still getting delusional thoughts — worst fears — dying painfully, having to relive my life again and again, voices encouraging me to kill myself.”

In the autumn he got a permanent job. He had moved back to his father’s, but frequently came around to me for dinner.

He saw his psychiatrist regularly and was prescribed various anti-psychotic drugs.

Liam had complained of hearing voices and had been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia from all the drugs he had taken.

By June last year, Liam was more active: swimming, cooking and playing the piano at home. I began to have hope. When I said he could live with me, he said he loved my house but felt there was something missing inside him.

He complained of an emotional numbness, described by psychiatrists as the “negative symptoms” of schizophrenia. He asked how he could go on for another 50 years feeling like this. On the day he died, he was due to come for lunch but he didn’t turn up and we were all worried. If he was not at his father’s house, where was he?

Even as I took that first call from Graham, I knew the answer. But it was not until about 20 agonising minutes later that Graham rang again: “Sue, come straight away. The police are here . . . Liam has thrown himself under a train.”

I didn’t ask whether our son was dead as I could not bear to be told over the telephone. Instead, after driving to the house in minutes, I ran up the path crying: “But he is all right, isn’t he?” Of course, in my heart I knew he wasn’t. Later the police told us that Liam had thrown himself under a train at 11 that morning.

Like any distraught mother, I blamed myself. Whatever I had done had not been enough. All I can do is hope to prevent other vulnerable people from being harmed by drugs in the way Liam was. I only wish with all my heart that I had been able to save my own son.