A Thursday afternoon and another lecture missed. In a dimly lit bedroom in south London, stooping over his mac with a fistful of curly brunette hair and flushed apple red cheeks, he *squeaks*. His bedroom is simple with white furniture. A bed, a wardrobe, desk, wooden floors and a large dusty window overlooking it all, black outside and no curtains or blinds. The overhead lightbulbs are dead and so orange light pools from his desk lamp, his face pasty in the laptop spotlight.
Deadlines for his final project and dissertation are fast approaching. Alongside the usual student nerves and the overbearing weight of responsibility that comes with final year, he also faces an internal struggle for focus and it scares the shit out of him. His body recoils, well aware of the stress ahead. His tics, involuntary noises and movements, are sharp and loud at even the opening of Word, at just the login of his student portal.
Attention deficit, hyperactivity, physical and verbal tics paired with university study stress and anxiety, is as you would imagine, a match made in heaven.
He wants to do it, but his body won’t let him. Straight forward HTML coding for his website module becomes a strenuous toil,
“L-l-look, java –sCript, jAva- script” he stammers, “Why am I like this ..I’m so fucking useless, why can’t I just do it”.
A pause. His fist slams hard on the wooden desk and it rattles. He rubs his hands hard down his forehead, along his eyebrows and sighs again. I hear his mother shout to him to calm down from elsewhere in the house.
“This is why I have to go Uni and just stay all night *squeak* so I get insomnia so I can at least get some done,” he explained.
A theory of his. To manage his symptoms, he reflects on previous behaviour and mimics his actions in the hopes his tics and ADHD will co-operate the same. In this instance, he hopes staying all night at his University will exhaust his body to the point it calms down and he can make progress in his work. He believes this has worked a couple times in his previous year although there is no concrete pattern.
With so little study in his Tourettes and a late ADHD diagnosis, Laurynas Misevicius a 23-year-old Computer Science Student, has to work on a trial and error basis to manage stress alongside University studies. There is no certain set of guidelines to help cope. With that in mind, how can student services, loved ones and doctors help? He feels approaching the University for help would be pointless and since his ADHD causes him to procrastinate and fall behind in work, he is embarrassed to approach lecturers or staff for assistance.This also leads him to avoid lectures.
“I’m just not made for University,” he whimpers, kicking his legs in frustration and forcing him and the swivelling chair to flick away from me. He leans over in the chair, head in his hands. * fuck ** igger *
A full day of frustration, self-hatred and slow progress. Witnessing him try again and again to concentrate and to complete simple tasks is painful. Twitching and muffled shouting, a juxtaposition of restraint and wild frenziness. Often his anger has brought him to tears, and he has battled with depression in the past.
“It’s taken me 6 weeks to even start this, my body doesn’t want me to and I just can’t fucking do it so I put it off, why am I like this” there are red rash like patches under his eyes, there’s nothing I can say.
There is a controversial alternative that Laurynas believes has been a significant help with his tics and focus – cannabis.
He turns back towards me, I see a flicker of resignation in his face before he reaches for the desk drawer. Tucked in the back and concealed in plastic bags is his weed and rolling materials.
After fumbling with the roach awkwardly, crunching the papers and shoving it all together he explains that after smoking a joint his tics are relatively quieter and less frequent and he can work steadily for several hours, making considerable progress in his assignments. A stark contrast to his emotional struggle and anxiety prior to smoking.
This is not to say that cannabis was a first choice, Universities have shifted their funding and attention to providing support for students who need it, however, rates of depression, anxiety and stress in students is growing. According to a YouGov survey of Britain’s students, one in four students suffer from mental health problems, 77% have depression-related problems, and 74% have anxiety related problems. There are only so many students Universities can support and with more extreme cases such as with Laurynas, the support available is not enough.
London College of Communications has said,
“There is a team of Mental Health First Aiders on every site (… ) These people are trained to offer support to people (…) with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicide, episodes of psychosis, bipolar etc – these people are only a first port of call if someone is having an episode of mental ill health. Student support (…) is really a place that works with students (…) to accommodate their studies as best as possible. For someone with Tourettes, Student Services may be able to offer training to academic staff of how to support this in a learning environment.”
Medication for his condition and assistance from his GP had also proven unsuccessful. He rolls his icy blue eyes, pushing the spliff contents down with a pencil as he speaks,
“Yeh I tried taking stuff for ADHD. There’s only one that’s not a stimulant and won’t make my tics worse. Started taking it in October but it just made me too relaxed and I didn’t care about anything, was worse cos I didn’t want to do work and didn’t care that I wasn’t doing it, so that was shit”
Laurynas isn’t the only one to use cannabis for its medicinal benefits. Although the majority of studies into cannabis are focussed on exposing harmful effects of the drug, there is research by scientists and independent researchers such as Medical Marijuana UK, to suggest that it can have a wide range of benefits to health, including helping with stress, anxiety and more serious conditions such as bi-polar, seizures and ADHD.
Many individuals are acting as living proof of its healing powers such as Laurynas and weed is a popular drug among students too. A Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study in America discovered that out of nine million, 703,759 full-time students used cannabis on an average day.
The number of students living with mental health issues due to stress at University is rising, and the number of students who smoke cannabis immense. Laurynas Misevicius is an extreme case of this on the more severe end of the scale and believes that smoking weed can genuinely help with his stress and the correlation suggests many other students are using the drug to cope with stress also. A recent report as part of Inhale Labs’ Cannabis in College study suggests that students who smoke cannabis daily achieve higher grades.
There is a plethora of scientists, researchers and groups who support the use of cannabis for medical use and many who call for legalisation and more official study, an ongoing struggle which the public is aware of. The 2014 (most recent) British drug survey revealed that 52% of Britons believe weed should be legalised, 60% of this group of a younger age, a figure which may well have risen. The annual 420 picnic protest for legalisation of weed attracted over 5000 participants last year also, and is expected to attract even larger crowds this year.
With so little media coverage of medical cannabis and so little official study into its benefits, however, it is difficult to officially state that it can help. The stigma attached to the drug often acts as a barrier to understanding and debate also. The government considers cannabis to be a Class B drug and as a result are stiff on any endorsing of its uses. Students who smoke cannabis are swiftly branded as lazy and unproductive.
Clumsily battling the creaky stairs down to the kitchen back door, Laurynas has spoken of his annoyance at this stigma,
“It sucks that I have to sneak behind my mum, she doesn’t get it but it helps! I have to sneak out here to smoke to relieve it cos if she caught me I’d get kicked out. Probably would have dropped out of Uni without it, I’m not a lazy stoner or an addict”
Outside in the black and cold, he tokes on the joint, his fingers tremble slightly as he shivers at the breeze. As he speaks his voice is hard and irritated on the topic but I notice his squeaks are softer.
It is frustrating that the possibility of dramatically reducing stress and mental health issues for University students is denied due to misconceptions and lack of support from government officials. Especially with figures of mental health in students so high and a recent survey revealing the alarming number of drop-outs as a result. However, smoking cannabis is not necessarily a magical cure. Different strains have different uses and effects.
Finishing the joint he trots over to the back fence, waddling in his mum’s slippers, and lobs the bud over. The hem of his navy jeans are damp from the grass, his t-shirt billows gently. I ask why he doesn’t just smoke entirely throughout stressful deadlines,
“If it was that easy I’d smoke whenever I work. It’s expensive, I have to do it in secret. Different strains give different reactions too, some types I guess are more stimulating so can make my Tourette’s worse, it can be really hard to get a hold of the right type. If it was legal I wouldn’t have these problems”
Medical Marijuana UK has provided research in cannabis’ effects on tourettes as well as other medical issues but in order to learn about strains for smoking, Laurynas had followed a Reddit group with a little success. Due to his specific condition, he was lucky to come across an advice page however this isn’t the case for all students. Just as with other drugs and with alcohol, the legalisation and regulation of cannabis can not only allow for more strenuous research but also create a safer market for young people to access cannabis.
Abrupt legalisation of weed in Britain is unlikely in the present even considering the recent petition to legalise the drug signed by more 230,000 Brits. However, a recent development in the NHS has offered some promising progress. An NHS unit revealed they will be testing a cannabidiol (CBD) vaporiser. The pen uses legal compounds of cannabis that presently have no regulatory status in the UK and although it only uses one of the many compounds and excludes THC, it is still a step towards official discussions on the benefits of cannabis. This could also allow for a possible spliff alternative for students, vaping cannabis?
“I think that would be really cool,” he laughs, “If it helps and it’s legal, of course. I’ve actually considered using oils, just dodgy cos I don’t know how to do it safely” He pulls the back door too hard and it slams and shakes. Shoulders flinching at the crash, his face wincing, we listen out for movement upstairs – all clear.
“Time for some work then,” he grins, no tics this time.
The company told the Independent,
“We are confident that this will go a long way towards creating a properly regulated cannabis market in the UK and are extremely excited to see what the future holds.”
It’s only a tiny step in a long battle, the majority of Britons appear fine with the possibility of legal weed, convincing the government to make changes, however, is an almost impossible task. Times are changing though, the Israeli government decriminalised cannabis this Sunday and a steady stream of positive media can only help in moving things along. The stigma around cannabis is no joke and neither is students’ mental health, the ‘lazy stoner student’ misconception is a misguided blanket stereotype and one that students such as Laurynas shouldn’t feel ashamed for.