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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 June, 2005, 21:20 GMT 22:20 UK
My son and cannabis
Terry Hammond
Cannabis: what teenagers need to know

In 1999 Terry Hammond's son, Steve, developed schizophrenia. Terry believes that Steve's condition was brought on by his cannabis use.

Panorama interviewed him as part of "Cannabis: what every teenager should know" which explores the issues surrounding the drug and its role in the often complicated and confusing issue of the development of mental illness.

Terry has worked for rethink the largest severe mental illness charity in the UK for 16 years. Since steve developed schizophrenia he has been campaigning for greater public education on the risks of cannabis use - especially for the young.

He strongly believes that his son's cannabis use was instrumental in the development of his schizophrenia and that without it, he may not have developed the condition.

Here he tells, in his own words, about his own experience with his son's condition and his personal views on the drug.

"Steve's 27 now, but when he started smoking he was about 16. I think it's when he left... he was starting to go to college. I mean he was just taking it like most of the other kids were taking it, you know, 2 or 3 a night on a Friday, Saturday night. I mean he'd already started smoking nicotine, you know tobacco to start with, but he was smoking.

I think most of his friends were smoking, yeah, I mean that was the thing to do and I think it was his friends that sort of introduced him to it. So, you know it wasn't a big deal, it wasn't something that you really thought about, it's what the other kids seemed to do and if you were already a smoker it seemed a natural thing to do.

It was really until he was about 19, 20, that he started smoking it more seriously. He decided that it was better than filling your stomach up with beer and it was quicker and easier and so, in his words he was beginning to start to binge on it a bit.

My wife and I started to notice changes, we noticed that he was not good at getting up and going out in the mornings, he started getting lethargic, he was missing college and he started actually to become more of a loner as well. He started shutting himself in his room more and becoming introspective more and that was unlike Steve because he was quite a sort of lively lad. So we did notice a change in his personality, definitely.

"Why did you ring the BBC?"

I was actually convinced he was suffering with depression and I said Steve, I really think we need to go to the doctors, because you are getting depressed. And you know he wouldn't have any of it. And then really it just got worse and worse over a period of about 3 or 4 months and the actual time that it was clear he was psychotic I was actually sitting watching the TV one day and he sort of suddenly looked at me and said, "why did you ring the BBC?"

I hadn't so I said "what are you talking about Steve?"

He said "Don't deny it, you know what you done, you rung the BBC to tell me, tell them who I am and what I'm doing, because they've been broadcasting my name all day."

My heart sunk and I just knew he was a very sick young man, it wasn't depression. I have had some experience in mental health and I've sort of worked in sort of social care for many years and so I'd come across people who had experienced severe mental illness and I know that obviously delusions and paranoia are one of the symptoms and it was clear that Steve was paranoid.

I was beginning to understand a little bit more about cannabis, you know friends have said that it does make you a little bit paranoid, but I realised then that Steve was actually very much more ill, much more sick than I thought he was. And from there on his health deteriorated very, very fast, very fast.

"He was a terrified young man"

It was sudden and it was in a period of, I'd say, 2 - 3 weeks. Steve actually now tells us why that was. He said he was heavily smoking it, he was smoking 5 or 6 a night, maybe for 4 or 5 nights, but he said that the day that actually caused the big problem was when he ate a piece of resin in a disco and he collapsed and when he woke up in the toilet he heard a voice saying "it's okay Steve, you can get up now, you're okay."

When he looked around there was nobody in the cubicle, nobody in the toilets and then he realised they were voices in his head and those voices in his head, he's had them ever since, that was nearly 6 years ago. And it was at that time... and it was the voices in his head that obviously terrified him, I mean he was a terrified young man, he didn't know what to do. He would scream and shout at these voices in his bedroom, he would hit his head against the wall.

Steve is a gentle man and he was a gentle kid. He was a lovely child as all fathers would say but he was really violent to himself, in as far as bashing the wall and screaming and he would throw things through windows and, you know, he was just terrified.

Looking back on it now, and I have talked to him about that now and he says that it was the voices, he said he had 3 or 4 voices screaming at him telling him all sorts of awful things and he said I was just trying to get them out my head.

Steve was convinced was he'd been taken over by aliens and he thought that we were aliens, or that we'd been taken over and he felt that he had to get them out to protect himself and protect everybody. He's not a religious lad, so as far as he was concerned, he said to me later, "well where else can they come from? How can I have voices in my head?"

He was totally convinced and you know, he would go out and he would scream out in the garden, he'd look up into the sky and he'd go down into the park, he would shout and tell them to go away.

Coming to terms with illness

I would try to reason with him, but he wasn't going to have any of it, he was totally convinced. And that went on really for about 18 months. But thankfully, he had cognitive therapy which is fantastic, by a local psychiatrist and it helped him understand why isn't anybody else hearing the voices, why is it just you Steve? And suddenly over a period of about 5 or 6 weeks he began to understand that, just maybe it could be in his head and obviously now he fully understands and now that he understands, he now realises he is ill.

Because until you realise you are ill, are you going to get treatment, because why are you going to need treatment if you aren't ill? So that was the break. That was, if you like, the big, big step forward. That was a milestone once he began to understand that.

I remember my wife saying "I want my son back." I don't think people do realise how serious mental illness is, how serious a disability is, to lose complete control of your thinking, lose control of your mind, who you are. To see somebody go through that and to live in and actually believe they are in some kind of nightmare world, is dreadful, is awful. It sends shivers though me now just thinking about it.

As soon as the psychiatrist who came in, the first psychiatrist he very quickly said well, you know we don't normally sort of make fast diagnoses he said, but I think you son is suffering with schizophrenia. And I obviously had thought about it myself having worked in mental health and I just thought. It was as if the world has collapsed really.

Making the connection

Steve didn't really connect the cannabis with his illness, so he was still taking it and it was almost like self medication, because that was the only way he could get back to feeling the way he was, by smoking. But we slowly - the cognitive therapy helped - I think he began to connect the two, but it wasn't immediate.

I think he got it from mates, I mean his mates were still around and they were concerned about him. It's funny, I mean I've never really talked in detail about it, but I think he obviously got it from his mates. I mean dope is quite freely available, so I don't think he had any difficulty. And when he was very ill, he was still going out occasionally, very occasionally he would meet his mates and things, but they couldn't cope with him because of his psychotic state.

I think the problem is that Steve was really in another world, Steve was heavily psychotic when he got the medication that stabilized the brain chemistry - and that took several weeks, maybe several months actually, until he was at a point where you could then begin to reason with him and talk to him. He still didn't fully connect it, but it wasn't until really he had the sort of cognitive therapy and then, if you like, very serious sort of counselling... well it's not counselling, it's talking therapy, was he able to connect the two.

"Cannabis was the trigger"

I personally believe, and Steve himself has got no doubt, that cannabis was the trigger, because he was smoking cannabis, he was beginning to binge on it and he actually talks about this period of time when he took it and collapsed and when he woke up after collapsing from eating a small piece of resin, he had the voices in his head thereafter.

I think the other thing is that there was the anecdotal evidence. Within my own circle of friends, I was noticing, and other friends were becoming worried about their own sons, so you know I connected it and so I've got no doubt that it was the cannabis. It could well be that

Steve may have what they call a vulnerable personality and I think that's probably the case and that he may be somebody at risk, but I am pretty sure that had he not taken cannabis, he would not have developed schizophrenia, I have got no doubt about that.

I am totally convinced he would not have developed schizophrenia, which fundamentally has ruined his life, that's the bottom line. It has now caused brain damage, that's the reality of it, it has destroyed some of the, you know, neurons in his brain, it has destroyed some of the communication system in his brain and he has now got brain damage as a result of cannabis, I have no doubt about it and I think there are tens of thousands of kids out there who are damaging their brains. I think it's a public health time bomb.

I have lived with him for 27 years now and I just know... Steve was an anxious kid, and so I think there was a tendency that he was like a vulnerable personality, but it was the cannabis, it was when he started smoking the cannabis and binging on it that he nose dived and it was over a very short period and so, you don't need to be Einstein to work it out.

Cannabis didn't cause it but it triggered it and I think that it exacerbated any potential problems Steve may have had
Of course we are looking for answers, all parents do look for answers and what could we have done to change it. You know, is there something in our background or whatever, but whilst I would say that cannabis didn't cause it but it triggered it and I think that it exacerbated any potential problems Steve may have had. I am pretty convinced he would not have nose dived into a psychotic state, I am totally convinced of that. And now some of the research that is coming out would, I think would support that.

I would certainly accept that it doesn't lead to psychosis, but I would question whether it's actually does affect their lives and interestingly enough, when a lot of people say to me, I've been on it years and years, I question whether they've reached their full potential in life and I often wonder whether they could have done greater in their life.

Very often I talk to people and you find out they actually dropped out of university, or they've had lots of jobs, or their life is slightly dysfunctional, you know, very subtly. Now I know that's a generalisation, but on anecdotal evidence, I know of people who talk about this and I question whether their life could have reached a high level of quality of life had they not smoked cannabis.

What about other drugs?

Lots of people can smoke cannabis and be completely free of symptoms and have no problems whatsoever and enjoy it, but more research needs to be done on this.

I think the problem is, that the other drugs, like LSD, only a very small minority of people at the end of the day take those. Cannabis... it's young people... it's now the drug to take and it's being taken on a much bigger scale than it's ever been in the history that we know. It's on a much bigger scale and the problem is now, we are talking about kids starting at eleven, twelve and thirteen. There is a general consensus now within the scientific world that THC has the potential to cause damage to the brain, the developing brain. That's the difference between cannabis and heroin and LSD: that it's taken on a much bigger level and it's a young people's drug now and it's part of the culture and that's the issue we've got to deal with.

Of course you have got to deal with all drugs, but I would certainly focus on cannabis because it is so widely taken and we don't actually know the effects it's having, that more subtle effects it's having on people and I think until we reach that level, until we know exactly the damage it's doing. My belief is and the belief of a lot of people, is that it is in fact affecting far larger groups of people than just people like my son Steve.

The Future for Steve

The prognosis for him is that he will improve, his quality of life will improve, he will recover to a degree, I don't think Steve will ever get back to the way he was, but what I am passionate about is that providing he keeps his medication, providing he gets the love and support from friends and families, which he does get, and he gets the support from the system, day centre, cognitive therapy, things like that, Steve will improve, I have no doubt.

I don't think he will ever be able to be the way he was, I accept that and Steve says that, Steve understands that. But I think he will improve and that is the important message, is that you can reverse the situation if you deal with it quick enough. If you stop the psychosis, if you get at the psychosis early enough and if you treat people early enough, you can slow that illness down and you can speed the recovery process. But I don't think he will ever be cured unless scientists come up with some new treatment.

I think many drug agencies still see cannabis as lightweight and that's understandable in so far as we know that heroin is associated with crime etcetera and heroin and LSD can be far more damaging in very quick periods but I don't think they do realise the serious effects that cannabis is having on the mental health of people.

Certainly if you talk to people in the mental health field, there are many commentators saying that this is the biggest issue confronting the mental health services in as far as causing relapse and slowing recovery... from psychosis and from mental health generally. Most mental health commentators would say that it will slow recovery and it will trigger a relapse, not just schizophrenia, we are talking about mental health generally.

It's almost a bit of a red herring the schizophrenia thing, the psychosis thing, you know, it's a broader band that it's affecting. What scientists are now telling us, if you have a mental health, then don't take cannabis.

Cannabis and the law

We shouldn't be talking about criminalization, this is absolutely crazy, this is a public health issue and we should be dealing with it as a health education issue. In France they've spent 10 million euros on health education for young people on cannabis. In the UK they have allocated 230,000. We have got to turn this around to a public health education.

Criminalizing kids is not going to solve the problem. Yes, dealers, that's a different thing, but not, you know young people, or anybody taking it, it's a nonsense, its the same as criminalizing people who take tobacco, we know it kills 100,000 people a year through cancer, you wouldn't criminalize those people, but what we need to do is to have major public health education.

We have reduced smoking in this country overall, over the years, dramatically. It has now become anti-social and that's what we've got to do with cannabis. And the only way you can do that is to invest millions of pounds and energize so that we can get this message across. At the moment we are not doing that and that's why cannabis is on the increase, because young kids truly believe that there's nothing wrong with taking it.

You have got to actually substantially increase the public education. In Sweden, in Australia, in New Zealand, they are investing millions of pounds and in New Zealand they have actually managed to reduce cannabis taking by young people by something between 20% and 30%

How did they do that? Because they energize, they put lots of money in it. At the moment all we are doing is just touching the surface. We are not really convincing kids and we're not convincing them because we are not investing enough in public education and we've got to substantially increase the investment. And the message will get through, we have got to actually get to the parents as well.

A lot of parents actually don't think it's an issue and what we do know is, that children up to about 13,14, they still listen to their parents - they are the biggest influence on them and so we've got to educate parents to say look, hang on a minute, cannabis is not safe, there is a potential risk there and therefore, you have a responsibility not to turn a blind eye to your kids smoking at 11,12 and 13."

Panorama's film, "Cannabis: what teenagers need to know" was first broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 19 June 2005, 22:15 BST.

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