Guest Speaker, Dr. Aaron Wallis, Talks About Marijuana Use: What Teens Need to Know

Marijuana use is very common among today’s teens. 

As laws around medicinal and recreational cannabis use have changed in recent years, we believe it is important that the conversations we have around it do too. Teenagers with peer groups that believe marijuana is socially acceptable are more likely to experiment with using the substance and struggle to identify when it is becoming a problem in their lives. Recently, we invited Dr. Aaron Wallis, a psychologist at PsychSolutions to talk to our students about cannabis use and the myths and science behind it. 

How Should Treatment Centers Talk About Substance Use?

“The purpose of this presentation is not to vilify or condone marijuana, it is to help us to take a different angle when talking to teens about the consequences of their marijuana use,” describes Wallis. “As with many things in life, the truth is often in the middle. Accurate information is often hard to come by in the world of marijuana and clients are exposed to and internalize many myths and half-truths.” 

At Elevations, we try to help kids understand their substance use without trying to communicate judgment or an agenda. By discussing the science behind marijuana use, students are empowered to make healthier informed decisions about what they put into their bodies and how it affects their mental health and relationships

Teen Understanding of Cannabis Use

We acknowledge that today’s teens have grown up in an era that believes that substance use is more socially acceptable than in previous generations. However, teens are often getting their information from questionable internet sources, like social media celebrities or accounts dedicated to recreational marijuana use. As a result, they tend to underestimate the potential effects of how smoking can affect their life as a teenager attending high school and living under their parents’ roof. 

Some common beliefs that teens have about smoking include:

  • It is not addictive
  • It is easy to control use
  • Everybody does it, everywhere, all the time
  • It helps with many medical and mental health issues
  • It is good for you 
  • Older people “just don’t understand”

Dr. Wallis acknowledges that many teens who smoke marijuana do their research, but this might look like texting the group chat or finding an online forum where users compare stories. He calls this type of research looking for “confirmation bias.” For example, a teen who wants to defend themselves when talking to their parents about their substance use might google “positive effects of marijuana” rather than “consequences of marijuana” or even something neutral, like “effects of marijuana.” 

When they’re looking for evidence that they are making informed decisions, anything they hear that contradicts their opinion (or any research they’ve found that supports their opinion) is discounted. 

The Facts About Marijuana Use in Teens

Dr. Wallis suggests that while the evidence that teens seek out about the benefits of marijuana use may be accurate, the problem is that the effects are different among neurotypical adults who use small amounts of THC for medical reasons and teenagers with mental health issues that want to use marijuana to numb out negative emotions. 

Unfortunately for teenagers, marijuana use can have much more long-term effects. The teenage brain is not yet fully mature, with neurodevelopment continuing until at least the early or mid-20s. During adolescence, the brain is particularly sensitive to drug exposure, and marijuana use impacts how connections are formed within the brain.

Based on the effect that marijuana can have on one’s prefrontal cortex, teens with underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes are more likely to struggle with tasks like assessing risk, planning ahead, and setting goals. This can affect teen’s study skills, which have an indirect impact on their academic performance, but doesn’t necessarily “change their intelligence.”

According to his research, Dr. Wallis describes that one’s level of psychological distress may determine which chemicals in the brain are released when using marijuana. Teens who experience low levels of stress often have a lower tolerance level for the substance but are more likely to release “feel-good” neurotransmitters when they try it. Teens with high levels of stress may feel the need to use more to feel a similar effect but are also more likely to trigger a “fight-or-flight” response in the process.

Using marijuana as a teenager as an unhealthy coping mechanism for stress or trauma makes teens more vulnerable to the negative effects of the drug than teens who use “socially.” Teens who struggle with co-occurring mental health issues are more likely to turn to substances to cope, even though it may reinforce symptoms like a racing heart or feeling dissociated from reality that teens with anxiety or PTSD already experience. 

Guest Speaker Series at Elevations RTC

Every few months, Elevations RTC invites outside guest speakers to come to campus to talk with students, staff, and community members about special topics relevant to issues that teens struggle with–from substance use to LGBTQ awareness. 

“It is natural for teens to question information from authority figures, especially if it goes against what they want to believe. That is why we feel it is important for students to get information from more than one source and to recognize that our staff are working hard to stay up-to-date with new research and techniques,” describes Clinical Director, Jordan Killpack. 

“Having a fresh face introduce similar topics that we talk about in groups helps them understand why we talk about things the way we do,” says Killpack. “In this case, our goal is not to tell teens that experimenting with substances is a bad decision, but rather to help them gather information that will better understand why they’ve made certain choices and how it’s affected them.” 

Ultimately, guest speakers help drive home the point of many of the discussions we have in a group therapy setting. For example, our substance use specialty group often talks about the role of thinking errors in substance use that help teens rationalize unhealthy behaviors. Hearing different perspectives and learning the facts helps teens become more self-aware and work towards letting go of unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

Elevations RTC Can Help

Elevations RTC is an all gender residential treatment center for teens ages 13-18 that helps teens struggling with mental health issues and risky and impulsive behaviors. We understand that risky behaviors may be influenced by a variety of underlying issues and use a multidisciplinary approach to address how risky behaviors have impacted students’ functioning. We provide intensive psychiatric medical care, educational support, group therapy, and experiential learning to help students learn more about their own behavior and set goals for their personal success. Elevations is relationship-based and utilizes recreation therapy to help teens move forward and develop healthier coping skills.

Call today to learn more about marijuana use in teens. We can help your family today!

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