Could the voices of your ancestors be trying to tell you something?

Using weed, especially a lot of it and from a young age, has been linked to the onset of mental illness in vulnerable people. When we say vulnerable people, we are mainly talking about those who have a history of mental health issues in their family but with mental health often being such a taboo topic of conversation, how can you ever know if your great-grandad suffered from depression or your mother s cousin s son has bipolar? So it's important to have the 'mental health family history' talk.

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At NCPIC, one of the things we constantly bang on about is the possible effect that using marijuana can have on mental health. Using weed, especially a lot of it and from a young age, has been linked to the onset of mental illness in vulnerable people. When we say vulnerable people, we are mainly talking about those who have a history of mental health issues in their family but with mental health often being such a taboo topic of conversation, how can you ever know if your great-grandad suffered from depression or your mother s cousin s son has bipolar?

This month, in focusing on sharing family history, we were really lucky to speak with a young mum, Sarah*, who told us about her experiences and how she is preparing her children for the future.

How it all started

Sarah was one of four siblings in her family, and as a kid she was known as two things the generous and sweet one, but also one to watch out for as her moods were always a bit all over the place. She was the oldest of the four, a very bright and intense thinker, and not afraid to get in and party.

At sixteen, Sarah was offered weed for the first time by a friend and found it helped to shut off some of her intense thinking and help her sleep so she started using it more and more often. Using at night didn t seem to have any prolonged effect on her day-time activities or her school results and the most worrying thing really was trying to hide it from her mum, who was a fairly strict, hard-working English immigrant. Sarah s mum didn t talk much about her family from England and none of the kids had ever met any aunts, uncles or grandparents. Despite the risk of being caught, Sarah kept up her habit and for a while, everything was going fine

When things went wrong

When Sarah was 18, she fell pregnant with her first child and decided to stop using any drugs or alcohol during the pregnancy. The nine months went well and didn t have too much trouble giving up old habits. She was fortunate to have had a pretty easy pregnancy.

The trouble started once her daughter, Hayley* was born, and Sarah suffered from post natal psychosis, afraid someone was after her baby and that the people in the newspaper were looking for her. While her situation did improve with time and treatment, her mum and brothers started to notice other strange behaviour.

Sarah was absolutely convinced that a famous international rockstar of the time was in love with her, she had phone calls with him, told all her friends about their shared love and would have jealous fits when she saw him on tv connected with someone else. We knew she wasn t well, so tried to support and help her, but the worst came one night when she tried to sneak out to meet this rockstar. We tried to stop her as best we could but the situation became violent and Sarah ended up in hospital, Sarah s brother told us.

Where it came from

After this episode, and taking into account other scenarios and symptoms, Sarah was diagnosed with schizophrenia, an illness she ultimately went on to manage well as she built a functional and successful life for herself and Hayley.

Sarah told us I have since found out that my mum s family has quite a history of mental health issues, and that, based on stories, my grandfather likely also suffered from schizophrenia. I didn t know that drug use could effectively turn on a switch in someone who was prone to illnesses like this and really was just seeking the relief that weed gave me from thinking all the time and not being able to sleep.

Sharing a message from the past

As Sarah s daughter turns 15, she is conscious that Hayley will likely be exposed to drugs at some point soon, if she hasn t been already. Like all parents, she knows she needs to stay on top of educating Hayley and keeping an eye on her.

Kids are going to be kids. I experimented and partied and had a good time and I don t think I can completely stop Hayley from going out and having her own experiences. I m lucky Hayley is really well rounded and mature and we ve been able to have some really honest conversations about what s happened to me I think the honesty is what will keep her safe.

I explained to Hayley that the few episodes she d seen me have were because I have a mental illness. It is important she understands that sometimes the potential for these types of illnesses can be in you, and you just don t know it, but that using drugs can change your brain chemistry and turn on that switch that can change your life forever. I don t blame my mum for not talking to me about our family history, she didn t like talking about family and none of us were aware there were risks because of it. But now that I am aware, I can t think of anything more important than letting Hayley know about our history, so she can make good decisions that will help her build the best life she can possibly have.

Next steps in family education

Sharing your family mental health history is a vital part of the drug education you provide to your children. To kick off, talk to a parent, aunt or uncle, or even an older family friend to see what you can find out about your family history. Once you re armed with the knowledge you need, start an ongoing conversation with your kids about drugs and ensure they understand if they are at a greater risk of developing mental health issues as a result of drug use.

For more information on cannabis and mental health, check out our factsheet, Cannabis and mental health, or order our Fast facts on cannabis and mental health booklet.

*Sarah and Hayley s names have been changed at their request.

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