Recent studies have highlighted that smoking high-strength cannabis may damage nerve fibres in the brain, impacting on the brain's white matter and impeding the efficiency of communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are 10-14 per cent higher than in traditional forms of cannabis. This finding comes as no revelation. Psychiatrist Sir Robin Murray has already highlighted the link between smoking skunk and developing psychosis.
In light of these findings surely it should be mandatory to forewarn children of the dangers of smoking skunk. Children will experiment with drugs, not all, but many will, some start at the age of 13 or above, when the brain is still developing. But children smoking skunk do not realise that they are playing Russian roulette with their mental health.
There is also the assumption that you have to smoke copious amounts of skunk to develop psychosis; this is not true either. Smoking a joint used to be seen as an innocuous past time, and granted there are many people who smoke and do not develop psychosis. But there others who have not managed to dodge the bullet.
I first tried cannabis when I was 18. My boyfriend smoked, offered me a joint and I liked it, I used to smoke while he played The Orb and felt myself floating away to the beats, but after a few months I realised that it was slowing me down and I split up from him and stopped. I didn't touch cannabis, or any other drug, for the next decade even though I was offered every drug imaginable. As a young student in London in the 90s doing drugs was normal. Even though I always declined it never stopped people offering. Knowing that alcohol was a depressant, since I suffered from dark bouts, I steered clear of the stuff.
Regarding cannabis, I always thought that it was a mild drug, a drug that would give you a gentle high; I bought a book about cannabis and learnt of its medicinal properties. The pure form, known as hemp, has many positive uses and smoking pure cannabis can ameliorate the suffering of those afflicted with multiple sclerosis for example. The problem in the UK is that it is not regulated, people sell so-called cannabis on the street, but often it is skunk they are touting, which is the pernicious strand of the drug. Sometimes I would go through long periods of never having a joint and then I would lapse again. Things changed after I bought a hash cookie in a club for a quid, except it wasn't hash they used, it was laced with skunk. I was tripping for three days, my brain was not the same after consuming that cookie.
Detail from A Soul on a Scroll (mixed media on 30-foot scroll of paper, 2012.) This scroll took me five years to make, begun in 2007. The work reveals a mind as it started to unravel
My former psychiatrist told me smoking cannabis was like trying to cycle with the breaks on. But he never forewarned me that smoking could lead to psychosis, which seems slightly odd. Because I already had an underlying mental health issue, I should have steered clear of smoking. Mental health problems exist on both the maternal and paternal side of my family and I know that my condition is partly inherited because I have seen similar patterns of behaviour with my siblings, my mother and my relations in Bangladesh. It is no coincidence. As a parent myself, I will be open with my children and tell them that they should avoid skunk, since they may have inherited the 'mad' gene that runs in my family making them more vulnerable to developing mental health problems in the future.
Volcanic Heaven (acrylic on MDF, 2008) I would make these curious paintings, and my work became increasingly dark. Often I worked with intensity, for hours at a time, not sleeping or eating. Smoking certainly didn't help.
Admittedly, I had been smoking a joint with friends before my first psychotic episode in December 2009. But then I stopped smoking altogether; this did not prevent the second episode in January 2010. I had postpartum psychosis in October 2010 and October 2013, again despite having stopped smoking for years. I do not know if that first episode irrevocably changed the neural pathways in my brain making me susceptible to psychosis, irrespective of whether I smoked or not. Instead of a joint being the trigger, sleep deprivation can precipitate the first signs of psychosis and I have identified eight stages that culminate in full-blown psychosis. Because I understand my triggers, I can stop myself from developing full-blown psychosis, but I can never be complacent or think my brain is cured.
During the second episode of psychosis I believed that I was the chosen one, that the whole of east London was full of clones, I sang on the corner of Valance Road convinced that I had to run naked down Brick Lane. This is just a truncated version of events. I was suffering auditory and visual hallucinations and feeling the pull of a seductive, imaginary parallel universe, if my husband had not been present I am not sure what would have happened. If I had known then what I know now about the links between smoking skunk and psychosis I would never have touched the drug.
Photo of Mia, 2009, by Laurence Edney. During this photo shoot I was very manic, it was taken a few months before the psychosis, but by then I was already heading for a big crash.
Parents, especially those with mental health problems, and schools have a duty of care to educate children about the inherent dangers of smoking skunk. Children need to know that it is not a harmless drug and smoking it regularly in their teens could predispose them to serious mental health problems in adulthood, especially those kids who are already more genetically predisposed to developing mental health problems.
More needs to be done to spread awareness. Youth is a time of experimentation and kids will take risks, whether we like it or not. Through education maybe they will be put off smoking skunk and won't go near it because it's just a nasty drug.
Sanchita Islam is the author of Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too, written under the pseudonym Q S Lam (Muswell Hill Press 2015)