Vaping and Mental Health: How It Affects Children’s Brains
By Jake Woody
The popularity of e-cigarettes has skyrocketed over the past few years. But what are these small electronic devices doing to your child’s brain? Recent studies paint a grim picture.
Recent studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 20 middle school students and 1 in 5 high school students are using e-cigarettes. The most popular e-cigarette brand is Juul. Currently making up 68 percent of the e-cigarette market, Juul has become notoriously popular among young people, especially grade school students. As of October 2019, the CDC has identified nearly 1,300 lung injury cases associated with the use of e-cigarettes ranging in patients ages 13 to 75, and more than two-dozen deaths. What are the common effects happening in teenagers’ brains when they light up their favorite USB-shaped vaping device?
A single Juul pod contains as much nicotine as a pack and a half of contemporary cigarettes. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance that can have a grave impact on the under-developed brain of a middle school or high school student. The areas of the brain that deal with cognitive and emotional processing, mainly the pre-frontal cortex, are at greatest risk of long-term damage from nicotine exposure.
“The pre-frontal cortex is largely responsible for things like thinking through a decision, sustaining attention, evaluating consequences, and controlling impulses,” says Hart Wylie, psychiatric nurse-practitioner at Canopy’s Center for Excellence. “If this area of the brain is damaged, you may see several problematic behaviors, including difficulty sustaining attention and focus, making poor decisions, acting erratically, and personality changes.”
Nicotine is considered a gateway drug. When a teenager becomes addicted to a substance, that substance remaps how their brain works. It creates a cycle of dependence which, depending on a child’s tolerance level, can start as early as the first couple of vaping pods used. Changes to the brain alters an individual’s threshold for addiction, making it more likely that a teen may experiment with cigarettes, alcohol, or harder drugs to get the same feeling he felt the first couple of times he “hit” his Juul. Recent studies from the CDC have found teens who use Juuls regularly are up to 7 times more likely to try cigarettes or more dangerous drugs.
“Withdrawal has physical and emotional consequences,” says Wylie. “Physically, the person will experience cravings and other possible negative health effects, such as excessive sweating, chills, and rapid heartbeat. Emotionally, the person may experience anxiety, panic, loneliness, and symptoms of depression. A person focuses so much on his addictive substance that once he comes down from the high, he realizes that other important matters in his life have been thrown by the wayside in pursuit of substance abuse. This is the birthplace for many of peoples’ anxious and depressive thoughts.”
The Child Mind Institute recently found that rates of anxiety and depression in teens have gone up by 37 percent since 2005. Teens today have more distractions than ever to invade their mental space without the added disruption of nicotine. Along with the physical ailments that have recently been connected to vaping pods, e-cigarettes contain truly destructive power.
As you become more aware of the side effects of using e-cigarettes, you will be more equipped to talk with your child. Start these conversations early. Sit down with your children or teens and share what you know with them about e-cigarettes and the health dangers they pose. Let them know you understand the social pressures they face and listen to what they have to say. Cold hard facts don’t always steer kids away from danger, but a caring and open heart can. If your child is already addicted to the nicotine found in e-cigarettes, there are many resources and professionals you can go to for help, including primary care providers and mental health specialists. Walk side by side with your child and get the help and healing he deserves.
Jake Woody is a public relations intern with Canopy Children’s Solutions. For more than 100 years, Canopy has provided innovative solutions to many of Mississippi’s most vulnerable youth through a comprehensive continuum of behavioral health, educational, and social service solutions. Learn more at mycanopy.org or call 800-388-6247.