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Alarming increase in psychosis due to drugs
Irish Examiner 22/08/2007

by Amy Rose

The clinical director of a mental health service has said the criminalisation of drugs has failed and that “cannabis is being thrown around the country like bales of hay”.

Calling for a national debate on use of the drug, Dr Tony Sharkey, head of the Donegal Mental Health Service, revealed that 50% of the people admitted to the unit with their first-time psychotic illness are drug users. More than 618 people were admitted to Letterkenny's Acute Psychiatric Unit last year.

Dr Sharkey said he has seen an alarming increase in the number of young people suffering from psychotic illnesses brought on by drug abuse. He was reacting to research published in Britain recently that showed cannabis could more than double the risk of psychotic illnesses.

“The majority of young people we see coming into the psychiatric unit now with their first instance of psychosis or first instance of schizophrenia are using drugs, and cannabis would be one of them. It's a dangerous drug”, he said.

“I'm sure about 50% of people who would come into my unit suffering their first psychotic illness are using drugs. You will seldom get them using just one drug, it's usually poly-substance abuse. To get somebody in here just smoking cannabis would be the exception rather than the rule, but to get somebody in who is drinking, smoking and taking ecstasy or cocaine, that would be very common and quite common among young people,” said Dr Sharkey.

He said 10% of people who use drugs in their teens would become psychotic and quite a number would suffer from depression.

“A 15-year-old who smokes cannabis daily is five times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, while someone who smokes it weekly is twice as likely.

“Whether it's cause and effect there's still some uncertainty, but numerous studies suggest very strongly that there are major psychiatric problems associated with cannabis”.

Dr Sharkey said seizures of drugs made up just 20% of all drugs being smuggled into the country.

“For every 20% seized, that means that 80% gets through. So for 61kg of cocaine they've found, 10 times that has really come in. Look at the seizures of cannabis, there's tonnes of it. It's being thrown around this country like bales of hay”.

Dr Des Corrigan, chairman of the State's National Advisory Committee on Drugs, said he would not be surprised if there was an increase in the level of admissions to psychiatric units because of drug abuse.

“In view of the literature appearing in the last year or so in relation to cannabis and mental health, it wouldn't surprise me that there was an increase”.