Cannabis Killed My Son

Andrew Jennings killed himself aged 25, after years of mental illness. His mother, Maggie believes his paranoid schizophrenia was triggered by cannabis use. She told Katy Edwards the poignant and disturbing story.   Andrew John Jennings died in April this year, clutching a photograph of his childhood cat, Mr. Wigs , in a fume-filled car down a quiet Suffolk lane. He was 25 years old.

At his funeral in St Peters Church, Charsfield, his mother Maggie and sister Belinda, 27, spoke of his long battle against paranoid schizophrenia, the terrible illness that dominated his whole life and had made him a prisoner in his own body.   Belinda, who works as a senior laboratory technician for Greene King, had said: “None of us can understand how tough it was for him, every hour of every day. In the end he realized this was no life for him.  “Andrew is at peace for the first time. Deep down I know this was the best and only option for him.”

By the end, Andrew was plagued with up to five “characters” – voices and faces, who would torment him constantly — mocking him and goading him ceaselessly.   His mother, a former producer on BBC Radio Suffolk’s John Eley programme, who now runs a B&B in Debach, believes he took his own life, knowing there could be no other escape from the illness.

She described the moment when Andrew left her and her partner Brian, for the very last time, just minutes before he committed suicide.   She said: “He told me that if it did have to happen that I should know there was no other way and that I was not to blame myself in any way. He said at no time in my life could I have done anything different — that this was in him and there was nothing that could have changed it.”

Maggie is certain, however, that had her son not used cannabis for much of his adult life, he might still be alive today.    She said: “I accept that had he not been so heavily into cannabis he could still have been very sensitive and troubled. He might even have needed a bit of help but he wouldn’t have had this dreadful, dreadful thing.”     She referred to recent research carried out by the Institute of Psychiatry, in London, which revealed a strong link between cannabis consumption and schizophrenia.

Professor Robin Murray, who led the study, published in the British Medical Journal earlier this month, has warned that the research should not be ignored. He cited many examples of cases, where, as with Andrew Jennings, bright young boys have suddenly begun to fail at school, displaying bizarre behaviour, before going off the rails altogether, ending up in a psychiatric unit.   Maggie first began to have concerns about Andrew when, aged 14 and a pupil at Ipswich School, he fell in with a group of cannabis users.

He became less communicative and was getting into trouble at school, which Maggie found very strange, given that he had won an award for the most promising student the previous year.   He had also begun to behave strangely.   On one occasion, he went missing for a whole week, having hidden away in a friend’s barn near Woodbridge. Another incident saw him set fire to the kitchen floor.  He was asked to leave Ipswich School, aged 15, owing to his disruptive behaviour and spent one year at Farlingaye High School in Woodbridge.

“He was a lovely, lovely child but he was beginning to change into someone I didn’t know,” Maggie said. “I am sure it was the drugs.”   She took him to the family doctor, who told her she did not need to worry, adding that “boys will be boys”.  Maggie also insisted that Andrew saw a drugs counsellor, but came away feeling she had been dismissed as an over-anxious mother.

Andrew did very poorly in his GCSE examinations and tried a few college courses, but could not settle. It was when he was working as a forklift truck driver in Felixstowe and living in his own flat that, Maggie believes, real paranoia took hold.   “He would come back with very strange stories about his work mates,” she said.  “He thought everyone was looking at him and calling him   names.”

Andrew was becoming a loner and had begun to drink heavily. He went through a string of part time jobs. He would complain to his mother that the man living above his flat made too much noise and would call him names.  “You could never tell what was real and what wasn’t,” Maggie said.  “He took no pride in anything. He would dress in black and curl up in his dirty flat.”   Even the habitual Friday night curries with his mother and sister were becoming very strained.   “It was obviously awkward for him to come,” Maggie   added.

When Andrew was in his early 20s, he tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists in the bath.

For some reason – Maggie believes he was frightened – he got out of the bath and went outside where he held up a car with a knife, intending to hi-jack the vehicle and drive it off a cliff.   The police intervened before Andrew had left the scene.

It was after seeing a community psychiatric nurse that he was finally diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and admitted to St Clements Hospital in Ipswich. “Even then, the real Andrew was still there, somewhere,” Maggie said.   “He was such a lovely person. He checked with the man whose car he took that he had insurance as he didn’t want to see him out of pocket.”   Sadly, Andrew’s medication never fully controlled his illness. He would drink alcohol, interrupting the efficacy of the drugs and, his mother believes, was still smoking cannabis regularly.   On his release from St Clements, Maggie tried to care for him at home but as the voices in his head began to take over, she became increasingly frightened.   A case in the media of a schizophrenic son having killed his mother because she refused to “back off”, eventually prompted Maggie to seek help.

“I had become terrified of him. I was going to bed with the car keys under my pillow so I could make a quick getaway,” she said.   Maggie was advised to take a back seat and allow carers at East Suffolk Mind to look after Andrew at The Moorings, in Ipswich.  Andrew had his own flat, which he loved, a television and a music system. He got on very well with his carers and enjoyed good food — smoked salmon, olives and feta cheese were his favourites. He was also a talented artist, although his illness would never allow him to concentrate for any period of time.

Maggie keeps a sketch of her niece, which Andrew completed just months before he died and also one of his beloved cat, Mr. Wigs.   She described how the voices would change Andrew’s face — from a smiling, “rubbery” texture, to a pinched, tortured face. She could always tell when he was having a particularly bad episode.

Andrew had told Maggie to watch the film A Beautiful Mind, which shows actor Russell Crowe’s character slump into the depths of mental illness, surrounded by the imaginary characters which dog his every waking moment. “Andrew said that was what life was like for him,” she added.   On one occasion, in February of this year, Maggie remembers Andrew asking her to cook him a Moussaka, which they enjoyed together, sitting on her patio in Debach.   She said: “Afterwards he took my hand and he said ‘It’s OK mum, I’m going to be around for a little while yet but I don’t think I can live like this for much longer.

“I cried and tried to talk him through it. I said that a miracle could always happen — there could be some new drug. He said he had nothing to look forward to. I was running out of things to suggest.”   At Maggie’s suggestion, Andrew bought himself a bicycle and set about planning a marathon journey to Wales.   “The planning was keeping him going,” Maggie said.

In the event, he only got as far as Debenham, realising there could be no real refuge from the voices.    Eventually, Maggie believes, he decided he could go on no longer.

He visited his mother’s house at around 11pm on April 24 this year to borrow a hosepipe, telling his mother he had hit an animal and wanted to clean blood from his car.  She was half-asleep and confused — she had come to suspect strange behaviour from her son. On leaving the house, Andrew had tapped Maggie’s partner Brian on the arm and asked him to take good care of Maggie.  It was only after Andrew had left that Maggie realised what he had meant. She and Brian sped after him in their car but were not able to catch him. They found his flat empty and feared the worst.

Andrew’s body was discovered, near Maggie’s home, down a quiet country lane. It was the only reprieve he could find from the horrifying illness that had made his life a living nightmare.   As far as Maggie is aware, her son never took any drug stronger than cannabis, apart from one experiment with ecstasy, which he had vowed never to try again.

“We’ve got to stop youngsters dying needlessly from cannabis,” she said.  “I hope Andrew’s example will make people think again.”

Mary Canon, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, with a specialist interest in the link between adolescent cannabis use and schizophrenia, said: “Cannabis definitely worsens the symptoms of schizophrenia, if it already exists. The prognosis is much worse if patients are heavy cannabis smokers. There is very little doubt about that.”

She added that cannabis could also be a trigger in those people who may have be susceptible to the illness.  Tina Graves, housing services manager for East Suffolk Mind, which cared for Andrew during the last few years of his life, said: “There is some evidence to suggest a link between cannabis use and schizophrenia but it has not been proven one way or the other. Everyone here was very distressed about what happened to Andrew and we have every sympathy with his family.”

Source: East Anglian Daily Times (UK) 2003

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