HOW CANNABIS TURNED A BRIGHT PUBLIC SCHOOLBOY INTO A SCHIZOPHRENIC Mark Watson, a much-loved son from a secure and comfortable background, had a bright future before him. But at 16 his behaviour became erratic and threatening and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His father David, a GP, believes his son's condition was triggered by his use of cannabis. Here, Dr Watson, 63, who lives with his second wife Lynn, 50, a head teacher, in Devizes, Wiltshire, tells his family's tragic story. As Mark and I sat together in the living room he suddenly turned to me and proclaimed with absolute conviction, 'You've got red eyes again, I don't like it.' When I asked him gently what he meant, my son fought hard to suppress his agitation, crying out: 'You know what it means. You're the devil. I know you are the devil.' Only months before my son had been a happy, energetic teenager with the world at his feet. He was now someone who at times seemed like a complete stranger, and I watched, horrified, as he made his terrifying descent into a nightmare world of hallucination, confusion and paranoia. I am an intensely private person and my family means everything to me. So it is not easy to speak out about my son. But I need to make people aware that what has happened to Mark is not simply random biological bad luck - but was, I believe, triggered by smoking cannabis. Mark's illness should be a warning to every parent and a lesson to every liberal politician who believes street drugs like this are basically harmless. Mark had such tremendous potential. A happy and healthy child, he was also very good looking and at the age of 11 even worked for a child model agency after being spotted while playing rugby. When he was three his mother and I divorced quite amicably. We decided it would be better if Mark and our two other children Kathryn, now 27, and Graham, 25, should remain in the family home and their mother would live nearby. Often I would come home and find her cooking meals for the children. Certainly it didn't seem to affect their behaviour. When Mark was 11 he passed the entrance exam to become a day pupil at the UKP2,000-aterm Prior Park Public School and I was immensely proud of him. He excelled in sport, particularly rugby and I loved to watch him play. He also worked hard, gaining ten GCSEs. We had a close relationship and I loved spending time with him, going fishing or shooting at a local club. However, after starting the sixth form in September 1998 to study for four A-levels, Mark's behaviour began to change. As a teenager he loved to go out to clubs with friends at the weekends. But when he came back he would be vague, silly and uncoordinated. As my son Graham who was 18 at the time pointed out, his younger brother was clearly 'stoned' - under the influence of some kind of mild drug. Of course, I was alarmed though not surprised by how easily a teenage boy, eager to experiment, could acquire these drugs. All I could do was plead with Mark not to touch the likes of cannabis. I've known all my professional life that this so-called soft drug has been associated with mental illness and at one point I physically got down on my knees and begged him not to use it. But he would just shrug his shoulders or smile benignly. As the months went on Mark would stay up all night watching television or listening to music, complaining he couldn't sleep. He also became increasingly distant. His mother and I spoke frequently about it, but neither of us could fathom it. A few months later, in May 1999 I got a call from one of his schoolmasters to say Mark's work had deteriorated badly. I tried to talk to him but he just said he wanted to leave school and that he couldn't take any more. He said he wanted to get a job and needed some independence. I'd had high hopes for him professionally and was concerned he felt this way. But I had been so upset about his general behaviour, and wondered if maybe the academic pressure had been too much for him, that I told myself that perhaps if he left school and had a less pressured existence he would return to his old self. We could worry later about what he should do with his life. Mark got a job as a waiter in a local hotel and also found a bed-sit to live in. It was an awful, soulless place and I reminded him how much I wanted him to be at home. But he was vague, distant and difficult to reach out too. Looking back this was clearly the deepening of the disintegration of clear thought that marks schizophrenia. And it was because of this that he was really unable to function independently. He was totally disorganised. He couldn't account for the money I gave him to help support himself and wouldn't turn up when I had arranged to meet him. Within a couple of months he had lost his job and had to return home. Once home his paranoia got worse. He would stay in bed until the afternoon, barricaded in his room. When I could get in I found knives and iron bars under his bed. When I asked why, he replied: 'In case they attack me.' As Mark's father my instinct was to reach out to help my son. As a GP I began to realise that this was a young man who could be suffering from schizophrenia and needed professional help. I knew this would mean seeking psychiatric treatment though hadn't thought beyond what the implications of this could be. There were still times when Mark could be perfectly lucid and we could enjoy dinner together or a nice chat. This could go on for a week or two and I would think everything was fine. Then within minutes he would change. One evening we went to a local pub for a meal and he became convinced everyone was talking about him. I had to take him home because he was so agitated. He kept looking frantically around the room and whispering loudly to me how people were staring. I suppose it was embarrassing but I'd gone beyond that. I was too deeply disturbed by what he was becoming. His mother and I spoke every day about Mark because she was as close to him as I was and we both agreed he desperately need professional help. So in October 1999 I contacted my own GP, who referred me to a psychiatrist. He visited Mark at home on several occasions, and listened to him as he described me as the devil. Yet it was still a shock when the psychiatrist recommended he should be admitted to hospital. It was just so hard to accept this terrible change in my son. But schizophrenia is a difficult illness to understand. People mistakenly believe it means a 'split personality'. Instead, it is an illness that can affect any aspect of the way a person thinks, feels, speaks and behaves, so he or she may lose touch with reality. Experiences such as hearing voices always seem very real to the person affected by schizophrenia, who may not recognise that they are unwell. It is the combination of delusions, hallucinations and thought disorder which are often called 'psychosis'. It occurs as a result of complex brain chemistry. The brain produces a chemical called dopamine, a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation and feelings of pleasure. Often known as the body's reward chemical, it is released during pleasurable experiences. We can get it from cigarettes, alcohol, sex, eating chocolate or even looking at a lovely sunset. However, if a person has schizophrenia they are unable to metabolise dopamine and this can cause symptomssuch as hallucinations. Taking drugs like cannabis produces a massive amount of dopamine in the brain. And this can trigger schizophrenia. It's now known that if someone had a flaw in their brain, which may or may not lead to mental illness, then taking drugs like cannabis could trigger conditions like schizophrenia. However, even more disturbing is emerging research which suggests that taking the drug without any biological fault in the brain could also cause the illness. It was devastating to have Mark sectioned, though he went voluntarily, understanding that he needed help. The hospital wasn't an unpleasant place but as a parent there is something horrifying about taking your 17-year-old son to a psychiatric ward. Being a doctor and understanding the medicine of it all couldn't shield me from the sorrow I felt as a parent. But I knew being admitted to a psychiatric ward was the only way we could help my son. At the hospital Mark was treated with a variety of anti-psychotic drugs in an attempt to find one which would have an effect. Throughout this time I visited every week praying to see some change in his behaviour. But as the months went on it all seemed so hopeless. None of the drugs were having any effect. I had my work as a GP to keep me busy and took pleasure in the development of my other children. Kathryn is now a teacher and Graham is in the Royal Marine Commandoes. The irony is that Mark was always considered the cleverest of my children and had got the best GSCE results. But we were also profoundly aware that he was fighting to gain some form of basic independence. After about a year in hospital, however, there was still no improvement. So his consultant suggested giving Mark a relatively new drug called clozapine. This works by blocking the action of dopamine in the brain therefore preventing the symptoms of schizophrenia. Within six months of taking the drug Mark was calmer and no longer hallucinated. By the end of two years, he seemed to be managing his condition so well that his doctors advised that he could come home. I knew this didn't mean he was cured but that he had reached a point where his schizophrenia had become manageable and would allow him to have some kind of normal life. He would, however, have to continue taking clozapine twice a day. Mark rejoiced at being discharged and talked about getting a flat of his own. After all, by now he was 20. I fretted over this but a very old school friend of his called Sam, who was a fine boy and one I could trust, said he could share with him. I had to support Mark financially as he was incapable of getting a job. But I prayed this independence would be the slow journey to a new start. He didn't do much all day, sleeping in late because of the effects of the clozapine. But it was a step away from being in hospital. However, it didn't last long. He soon stopped taking the clozapine and before long Sam told me that Mark was smoking cannabis. But I just couldn't get through to him. I was helpless because I couldn't cut off his financial life line and have him wandering the streets. But the drug soon affected his behaviour and he quickly started displaying signs of his illness. He was delusional and even aggressive, lashing out at me which was a frightening experience. Then he would disappear for hours - once it was two days before the police found him - and I feared for his safety. I had no choice but to have him readmitted to hospital. This time he was sent to Kneesworth House Psychiatric Hospital in Cambridge. He was put back on clozapine and had counselling and anger management sessions. The place itself is very calm because it is located near a farm and set in green fields. I knew this kind of atmosphere could only help Mark. He has been there for three years now and I go down to see him every week. He looks better and feels calmer, though he has put on an enormous amount of weight - he now weights 22st - as a side-effect of clozapine. But I'm just grateful that he has managed to find some peace of mind. Throughout this terrible ordeal one thing that has helped me has been getting involved with Rethink, a charity which works to help everyone affected by severe mental illness - and that includes the families. It was a revelation to meet parents like myself all united in sorrow for their children's situation. I admit that I had felt ashamed by Mark's condition, but through meeting such people I discovered that cannabis-associated mental illness is no respecter of social class. There were high-court judges and lawyers whose children had succumbed to drugs, then developed schizophrenia. The time has come for young people and their parents to be aware that cannabis can trigger the condition. It is not a riskfree drug and classifying it as such is a total red herring. In January Charles Clarke announced to the House of Commons that the mental health effects of cannabis were 'real and significant' and that it may exacerbate or even trigger a range of serious mental health problems, including schizophrenia. He added that a massive programme of public education was needed to convey the danger of cannabis. Unfortunately, nothing has yet been done. And though a person can stop taking cannabis, once the brain has been triggered into a schizophrenic state, this can never be cured, only controlled. So people taking it now are playing Russian Roulette with their health. It's something I have to accept for Mark as we start to talk about him being discharged from hospital. I remarried two years ago and my wife and I moved from the family home to our present place in Devizes. But I haven't sold the old house because I'm nursing a hope that one day Mark can live there, look after himself and have some quality of life. It has been heartbreaking watching the destruction of a life once so full of promise. As a parent I've been through every stage of anger, grief, shame and despair. Now the only thing I cling to is hope. Hope that Mark can reclaim something of the life he has lost and hope that by speaking out I can stop other parents and their children suffering in the same way. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/li...ain.html?in_article_id=398519&in_page_id=1774 Comments? I think that while this indeed is a possible risk of the drug, educating people would be a much better policy than trying to make it even more of a crime. Also, the father knew his son was using pot and should have known if there was a history of schizophrenia in his family. Especially as a GP. He claims that it wasn't biological and seemingly blames it all on the weed. What happened to his son is sad but to blame it all on the drug is just stupid. Plus now you have things like "In January Charles Clarke announced to the House of Commons that the mental health effects of cannabis were 'real and significant' and that it may exacerbate or even trigger a range of serious mental health problems, including schizophrenia. He added that a massive programme of public education was needed to convey the danger of cannabis." so incidences like these will just fuel further anti-drug propaganda that exagerates the dangers of the substance and makes it seem like the devil's own weed while many otc's are plenty more dangerous. Thoughts?