Photo and illustrations: Dasha Zolota

Putting your mind at risk

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Experts have found a connection between your favourite bad habits and your worst feelings — from depression to reality disconnect. That vice may be nice, but it turns out university students are at the perfect age to snap. By Charles Vanegas

Paul Lukas* remembers his first cigarette. Many smokers do. In 2011, Lukas was walking home from a friend’s when he came across a serious car accident. The aspiring photographer had his camera equipment with him and started shooting, thinking the photos could be sold to a news source.

Lukas recalls viewing dismembered bodies through his lens, when another photojournalist approached him.

“He offered me a cigarette, just to reduce my stress because it was very obvious that I hadn’t seen a dead person before,” says Lukas, a Ryerson student. “From there, something just happened where I was just associating my stress with cigarettes to kind of relieve it.”

By definition, a vice is an immoral or evil practice, however the term is more commonly used to simply describe a bad habit that is accepted due to the joy or benefit drawn from it, while acknowledging its harm. But experts say vices aren’t as innocent as they’re often played off, especially for university students, who can use the habits to mask underlying substance abuse and mental health issues.

While Lukas says he doesn’t like the fact that he smokes because he knows it’s unhealthy, it’s something that he continues because it helps with his anxiety.

“It’s anxiety, but it’s [also] because I smoke pot and I like to get a head rush when I’m stoned,” says Lukas. “I’d say 85 per cent of my cigarette consumption is when I’m high or drunk. I’ll rarely smoke just to smoke.”

When he was 17, Lukas was diagnosed with Bipolar II, a disorder that causes him to have sudden mood changes and anxiety issues.

“I didn’t really know bipolar was really a thing at the time, and I just thought ‘I’m just a teenager going through what teenagers go through.'”

Lukas says that living with his parents wasn’t that bad, but leaving to come to Ryerson made it easier to deal with his mental health.

While he has medication to help with his issues, Lukas says he isn’t free from symptoms, and has to make a conscious effort to ensure his disorder doesn’t affect his relationships with others.

“You just want to live in that moment and get away from what’s going on. I guess that’s why people party,” says Lukas. “They just want to have a good time and want to de-stress from a long week at work or school.”

University life is hectic, so any chance to de-stress is a welcome one. But some medical experts say that a vodka shot, bong hit or cigarette may not be as simple as routine unwinding.

According to Dr. Clairélaine Ouellet-Plamondon, a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) who specializes in the neurological connections behind substance abuse and mental health disorders, university students may have a greater chance to develop substance abuse-related mental health issues due to their age.

“This is an at-risk period, and we know that alcohol and drugs can trigger mental illness in some cases, so we need to be careful,” says Ouellet-Plamondon. “Around 75 per cent of mental health illnesses develop between the ages of 15 and 25, so really there are a lot of people who have their first episode while they are at university.”

This is due to synaptic pruning, a process in which the brain eliminates unnecessary connections (called synapses) between neurons, allowing the remaining synapses to develop and become capable of more complex functioning. As a toddler, the brain has its maximum number of neuro-connectors, but synaptic pruning is largely completed throughout the aforementioned ages of 15 to 25, which makes young adults more likely to develop mental health issues. This risk is enhanced if the person is a frequent user of alcohol or drugs, since the brain itself is still developing.

The Cannabis-Psychosis Link, a journal published in the Psychiatric Times in June 2012, analyzed the findings of numerous studies conducted since 1987 that connected marijuana use with the development of psychosis, a mental disorder in which contact with reality is lost.

The compiled evidence suggests there is an “increased risk of psychosis in cannabis users compared with non users,” sometimes up to 40 per cent. But while cannabis use in adolescents may result in a mental disorder for those with a family history, there is non-conclusive data that suggests cannabis will trigger a disorder that wouldn’t have occurred without it.

Dietary habits, which are notoriously unbalanced for students, may also have a direct correlation to mental health. The U.S. National Institutes of Health found that the freshman 15 could weigh on your mood as well. Their study found that those who drank more than four cans of soda per day had a 30 per cent greater risk of developing depression than those who drank none.

According to Dr. Su-Ting Teo, Director of Student Health and Wellness, 11 per cent of visits to the Ryerson Medical Centre are related to mental health issues. Teo says a number of these visitors report using vices, predominantly marijuana and alcohol, to cope with stress-related issues.

“If they’re using them that much (daily or excessively), there’s often a mental health issue,” says Teo. “I would have the conversation and say, ‘this is helping you feel better, it makes total sense, but in the long run, it’s worsening the anxiety and depression. Do you want to do something about it?'”

The centre employs three full-time physicians and a weekly psychiatrist. While the university is reviewing its next steps in improving its services for students with mental health issues – adding two additional counselors (making 14 in total) to the Centre for Student Development and Counselling – it still lacks the resources needed if students are having extensive issues, and often students are referred to nearby facilities, such as CAMH.

“Because we have to support so many students at Ryerson, we can’t see one individual for years and years every week. So we’ll refer them to people in the community who can see them for longer,” says Teo.

Betzalel Wolff, a psychotherapist at Toronto Addiction Counselling, says that students rarely seek treatment for addictions or addictive behaviour, because it’s difficult to differentiate what is a problem, and what is normal and healthy for young adults. It is especially difficult for students to know if they have any issues related to sexual addiction because they either don’t know the consequences of their behaviour, or simply “think they’re having fun.”

“We do have the compulsive masturbator or the guy who spends ten hours a day online, but [usually it’s more difficult to recognize],”says Wolff. “The guy who is doing things that may appear to be sexual addiction but he’s having no consequences – nothing’s going wrong. He’s watching porn for two hours a day but it’s not affecting his family or his job – then it’s going to be hard to call it an addiction. He may be an addict or he may become an addict, but it’ll be hard at this point to call it an addiction.”

The simplest way to know whether someone needs treatment, according to Wolff, is to determine whether the behaviour is causing significant consequences in the person’s life and they are still unable to quit their habit.

While the information is inconclusive on whether vices are contributing to or simply triggering mental health issues, Ouellet Plamondon says students need to monitor whether their use of vices is reaching the level of addiction. Those who “wake-and-bake,” for instance – where a user smokes marijuana in the morning, similar to having a coffee first-thing – should be concerned if they actually need the drug to start their day, according to Ouellet-Plamondon.

“There are people who will say ‘I [smoke] a joint three times a week and there are no [negative] consequences – that’s where we’re less concerned,” she says. “There’s a big difference between [occasional use], and when your body and mind are used to it.”

Ouellet-Plamondon said there are always people who will try to keep their occasional bad habits from transforming into an addiction, but there’s no guarantee their will can overpower their possible dependence to a given vice.

“There’s always a risk, but it depends on the frequency, the quantity, when you use it, and what you’re using,” she says.

*Name has been changed.

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