An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

The Link Between Vaping and Mental Health

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Many young adults don’t realize that vaping is harmful to their physical and mental health. In fact, one-third of young people believe that vaping nicotine is no worse than drinking a cup of coffee. And they may not understand the links between vaping and mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, psychosis, and eating disorders.

Awareness is growing around the dangers of vaping due to the FDA’s ban on the sale of JUUL vaping products in June 2022. (As of this article’s publication, the FDA had put a hold on the ban). But young adults need more education and information about the short-term and long-term effects of vaping on their health and well-being.

Stats on Vaping in Young Adults

Vape products, also known as e-cigarettes, are the most common tobacco products used by college students in the United States. Three-quarters of college students who use tobacco vape, as compared to 42% who smoke cigarettes. The most recent Monitoring the Future survey found that vaping in college students, including both nicotine and marijuana, had doubled between 2017 and 2018. This represents one of the largest proportional increases in 40 years.

There was a slight decline in vaping in 2020 among this age group. However, vaping in young adults continues to remain at high levels. About a quarter of young adults (ages 18–22) vape marijuana,13 percent vape marijuana regularly, and about 1 in 5 vape nicotine regularly.

Why Do Young Adults Vape?

Why is vaping appealing to young people? There are a number of different reasons why young adults vape, including:

  • Curiosity
  • Peer pressure
  • Liking the taste better than cigarettes
  • As a way to reduce stress, including academic pressure and social anxiety
  • In order to reduce their use of traditional tobacco products. However, using vaping as a way to quit smoking is not proven to be effective. Often, people actually end up continuing to use both traditional cigarettes and vapes, known as “dual use.”
  • Believing that vaping products are safer than consuming nicotine in other forms, such as cigarettes.

Know the Facts

81% of young adults said they started vaping as a way to decrease stress, anxiety, or depression, according to an August 2021 survey of 1,000 people between ages 15 and 24.

Perception of Vaping Risk Among Young Adults

Fewer than 20 percent of young adults perceive vaping marijuana occasionally as harmful, and only about half believe that vaping nicotine regularly is harmful. In fact, a new study finds that 1 in 3 young adults believed nicotine to be no more harmful than a cup of coffee. In addition, more than 1 in 8 believed that nicotine is only addictive when smoked from a cigarette. 

According to one study on vaping in college students, most young people realize that vaping could increase their risk of developing cardiovascular disease or lung disease. However, fewer than half of students knew that e-cigarettes also increase the risk of seizures. And only one-third to one-half of the students were aware of or able to identify the toxic substances contained in these products—nickel, tin, lead, flavoring chemicals, and other ultra-fine particles that are harmful to the lungs. In addition, fewer than half were aware of the link between vaping and mental health issues such as depression.

Why Is Vaping Bad?

Vaping is generally considered to be less harmful than smoking tobacco. However, in addition to the link between vaping and mental health, vaping also has both long- and short-term effects on physical health, as mentioned above. Here are some frequently asked questions and answers on the topic of “why is vaping bad.”

The Short-Term Effects of Vaping

  • Is vaping addictive? Nicotine is addictive as heroin and cocaine. Furthermore, the extra-strength cartridges available for e-cigarettes have a higher concentration of nicotine. That means it’s easier to become addicted.
  • Can vaping cause shortness of breath? Yes, vaping can cause an increase in shortness of breath, coughing, and fevers.
  • Is vaping weed bad for you? In addition to the other health effects of marijuana, research has shown that vaping THC may be twice as damaging to the lungs as vaping or smoking tobacco.
  • Can vaping cause swollen lymph nodes? The chemical propylene glycol (PG), frequently used in e-cigarette liquid, is known to cause swollen lymph nodes as well as a sore throat and inflamed airways. 
  • Is vaping bad for your teeth? Nicotine can reduce blood flow and nutrition to the gums. It can also cause acid reflux, which erodes the enamel on your teeth.
  • Does vaping weaken your lungs? Yes. Young adults who vape cannabis are at risk of developing vaping-associated lung injuries (EVALI). Furthermore, a 2020 study found that young adults who vaped were five to seven times more likely to have dangerous COVID-19 symptoms due to the lung damage done by vaping. Vaping also increases the risk of contracting lipoid pneumonia, which occurs when fatty substances are inhaled into the lungs. In addition, the chemical diacetyl, which is used in vaping liquid and flavorings, is associated with a condition called popcorn lung, which damages small airways in the lungs.

Other short-term effects of vaping include sleep problems and restlessness, nausea and vomiting, and mouth and tongue sores.

The Long-Term Effects of Vaping

  • Does vaping cause high blood pressure? Yes, nicotine raises blood pressure and spikes adrenaline, increasing your heart rate and your risk for a heart attack.
  • How does vaping impact the brain? Nicotine dependence can lead to disruptions in brain development and brain chemistry, particularly in the parts of the brain that control mood, learning, attention, and impulse control. Many devices produce vapor containing lead, which can cause brain damage.
  • Does vaping impact cardiovascular health? One study found that some of the common chemicals used to flavor vape juice could damage endothelial cells, the cells that line blood vessels and lymph vessels.
  • Does vaping cause cancer? Cancer may prove to be one of the most significant long-term effects of vaping on health. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found substantially increased levels of five carcinogenic compounds in the urine of young people who vape.

How Does Vaping Affect Your Mental Health?

Vaping and mental health are related not just because of the mental effects of vaping on the brain. In addition, the reason young adults start vaping is often related to mental health. A Truth Initiative survey found that 4 out of 5 young adults begin vaping due to stress, anxiety, or depression.

However, the negative impact of vaping far outweighs any temporary relief from mental health symptoms. Furthermore, if a young adult tries to quit vaping, they may experience increased anxiety and depression as part of withdrawal. Hence, they are less likely to try to reduce or stop their usage.

Vaping and Depression

Research shows a clear association between frequent vaping and depression. In one study of vaping in college students, students with symptoms of depression were 34 percent more likely to use e-cigarettes. But does vaping make you depressed? Or are young people with depression more likely to start vaping?

The link between vaping and depression appears to go both ways. Young people often start vaping as a way to cope with symptoms. But vaping can also increase depression. For one, nicotine has a dysregulating impact on mood and brain function. In addition, young people who use vaping as a coping mechanism for depression may fail to develop healthy coping strategies, such as social connection, physical activity, or seeing a mental health professional. To educate youth about the link between vaping and mental health, the nonprofit Truth Initiativerecentlycreated a fake vaping company called Depression Stick! to explain how nicotine can make depression worse.

Know the Facts

E-cigarette users are 3 times more likely to have a clinical diagnosis of depression.

Vaping and Anxiety

Does vaping cause anxiety? Does vaping increase anxiety? Or does vaping help with anxiety? As with depression, some young adults vape nicotine or THC as a maladaptive coping mechanism for anxiety. In a study of 3,500 college students, those who used e-cigarettes were significantly more likely to have symptoms of anxiety. They were also more likely to have ADHD and to engage in other types of substance abuse. These conditions often co-occur with anxiety disorders.

Studies on nicotine and anxiety show that any relief provided by vaping is temporary. And vaping can make anxiety worse. Nicotine negatively affects mood and brain function. While marijuana in low doses has been shown to decrease anxiety, high doses can cause anxiety and paranoia. Moreover, there are many mental health risks of vaping THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana).

Vaping and Psychotic Disorders

Marijuana use has been shown to significantly increase the risk of developing a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia. Young adults who vape THC, rather than smoking or eating it, are at even greater risk. That’s because the THC levels in vaping liquid are so high.

Research has previously shown that individuals who consume THC are three times as likely as those who do not to develop a psychotic disorder. Vaping solutions increase this risk more than sixfold due to the potency of the vaping solution, which on average contains 52% THC versus the 13% THC contained in the marijuana flower.

Chad Percifield, DO
Researcher on vaping and mental health

Vaping and Eating Disorders

A study of eating disorders and vaping in college students found associations between self-reported vaping and eating disorders. Among 51,000 college students in the study, 6 percent of frequent vapers had an eating disorder diagnosis. And 30 percent had an elevated risk of developing an eating disorder. Both numbers were higher than the percentages for students who didn’t vape.

These results reflect the fact that young adults with eating disorders are more likely to struggle with emotional regulation in general. And they use vaping or other substance abuse to regulate their emotions and underlying mental health issues. Moreover, young adults with eating disorders may use nicotine as an appetite suppressant.

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Vaping and Mental Health Symptoms in Young Adults

The vast majority of young adults start vaping due to mental health concerns. Thus, while quitting the habit is important for health, they also need professional support to heal the underlying trauma, anxiety, and depression. Treatment can also address co-occurring issues like substance abuse and eating disorders.

At Newport Institute, we guide young adults to tap into their strengths and passions and build healthy coping mechanisms for mental health challenges. Through lifestyle change, clinical and experiential therapy, and a caring community of peers and mentors, young people experience powerful positive change and find long-term recovery. Contact us today to find out more about our specialized programming for young adults.

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Co-Occurring Disorders / July 15, 2022

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