Springs Parents Tell Of Son's Pot Smoking, Suicide M.E. Sprengelmeyer | Rocky Mountain News | 05/04/2005 WASHINGTON - Ernest Skaggs wore a cowboy hat. His wife, Tanya, wore a bright, turquoise blouse. If the Colorado Springs couple looked out of place at a table full of dark power suits Tuesday, it's because they never imagined they'd take center stage for a new White House anti-drug initiative. A family tragedy put them there. Flanked by President Bush's "drug czar," John P. Walters, the Skaggses faced a bank of television cameras at the National Press Club and spoke about their son Christopher's slide into marijuana use leading up to his suicide last summer. "We thought we were doing the right things," Tanya Skaggs said. Christopher was a promising football player with plenty of friends. They never knew he used marijuana until he was caught one day smoking behind a school. They tried random drug Tests and put their son into counseling. What they had taken for normal, teenage mood swings turned out to be a sign of more serious depression, the parents said. On July 13, 2004, Christopher hanged himself at the family's home. "We were naive," Tanya Skaggs said. "We really didn't know some of the warning signs." Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, asked the Skaggses to tell their story. The purpose was to highlight studies suggesting that those who begin marijuana use at a young age are more likely to end up with serious mental health disorders. "This press conference is a public health warning," Walters said. A study completed in 2003 found that 42.9 percent of adults had used marijuana at least once - almost half first trying it after they turned 18. The rate of serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, was 9 percent for the overall population and 10.5 percent for those who used marijuana. But figures rose sharply for those who first used marijuana at young ages: between ages 15 and 17, 12.2 percent; between ages 12 and 14, 17.4 percent; before age 12, 21 percent. The new White House initiative is an attempt to counter a perception that marijuana is not a dangerous drug. Twelve mental health organizations are behind an open letter to parents, "Marijuana and Your Teen's Mental Health," that will start appearing in national news outlets this week. Participants in Tuesday's event conceded that the studies only suggest, but don't prove, a cause-and- effect relationship between marijuana use and a rise in mental health problems or suicide. They said some people might use marijuana to "self-medicate" for mental illnesses they already have, but believe that others would not have psychiatric problems if they weren't using the drug. "I wish I could tell you the Skaggs story is an unusual one, but unfortunately it is not," said Richard Suchinsky, a doctor from the American Psychiatric Association Council on Addiction Psychiatry. Ernest Skaggs said parents need to communicate with their kids and look for early signs of drug use or mental health problems. "If you have a good instinct about anything, go for it," Skaggs said. "If you have the slightest hint that they might be using marijuana, go for it." Tanya Skaggs said she never imagined she would travel to Washington for a White House-sponsored press conference. "We just never thought something like this would happen in our family," she said. "But it did."