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National study links adolescent marijuana use with higher risk of psychosis

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Actress Laura Burke tells her story of hope and  recovery at National Schizophrenia Society Conference Tuesday in the Fort Garry Hotel.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Actress Laura Burke tells her story of hope and recovery at National Schizophrenia Society Conference Tuesday in the Fort Garry Hotel. Photo Store

After nearly a decade of living with schizophrenia, Laura Burke’s story is one of hope.

But not the sunshine-and-roses way. More the survive-the-day way.

Burke, 33, had suffered years of depression, anorexia and anxiety in her teen years followed at age 24 by some dark days of psychosis before being diagnosed with schizophrenia -- a brain disorder that causes delusions, paranoia and disorganized thoughts and speech.

The former theatre student at Montreal’s Concordia University is now studying to become a psychotherapist.

Burke is in Winnipeg for the 2013 Schizophrenia Society of Canada’s national conference at the Fort Garry Hotel. She was a speaker on Tuesday during the second of the three-day event.

"My story is not really one of hope in a traditional sense. It’s realizing that life is workable," she said. "I survived because I came to love myself by realizing the absurdity of society’s judgments and assumptions. To accept myself, so I no longer have to defend my own insecurities, to be open, to be daring enough to care for others."

Also at the conference on Tuesday, the results were released from a four-year national study that revealed that smoking marijuana, particularly heavy use in early adolescence, increases the risk of psychosis by as much as 40 per cent. Psychosis, one of the symptoms of schizophrenia, is often characterized by hallucinations and delusions.

The study, called the Cannabis and Psychosis Awareness Project, showed marijuana use in youth who are prone to psychosis -- mental illness in the family -- makes them four times more likely to develop psychosis.

"As an early teenager, I did, and it could have affected me," said Burke, who said she used marijuana during her teen years. She said she hopes the new information will help youth make more informed choices.

"I would advise kids to wait until they’re 18 because that’s when the brain is more developed. The critical period is between 13 and 18," she said.

The study involved 50 young Canadians who then created a video Awareness Strategy for Youth (www.cannabisandpsychosis.ca).

Chris Summerville, executive director of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society and the CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, said the youth in the study found the use of cannabis hindered their recoveries and interfered with the effectiveness of medication.

"Here’s the bottom line, from various studies, is that if you have mental illness in your family of origin you are at a greater risk of developing psychosis and schizophrenia being triggered if you use cannabis," Summerville said.

"Kids need to know. Guidance counselors, youth pastors, anyone working with adolescents, they need to give youth this information as part of Health 101, so to speak."

Burke said no one knows what causes schizophrenia as "there are as many factors as there are people who suffer" so it is important gather facts, not perpetuate myths.

"It’s possible it could happen to anyone," said Burke, who has written an autobiographical play called Heartwood about her diagnosis and lifelong road to recovery. "I’ve realized what saved me. It was being treated as a human being, especially by my peers."

She encourages people to try to move past being afraid of people living with mental illness.

"Be contemplative. What if it was you, someone you know, someone you cared about? In that case, you might be able to relate a little bit differently," Burke said.

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

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