Cannabis Use and Mental Health: Things to Keep in Mind
Many people use cannabis to treat illnesses and disorders or alleviate disease symptoms. Others use it for the positive effect it has on their mood, or for relaxation. However, there are some cases in which the use of cannabis must be approached with extreme caution.
Cannabis and its derivatives have a clear use for the treatment of many physical ailments, from those undergoing chemotherapy, suffering from chronic pain, or with other recognized health issues. It helps with symptoms of nausea and supports weight gain for those who suffering from wasting diseases.
Despite this, it does not, however, do any favors for those suffering from mental health issues, and can often make instances of psychotic episodes more frequent and their severity more intense.
Dozens of international studies over the past 30 years have looked at the relationships between cannabis use and sufferers of mood and anxiety disorders. For disorders such as major depression, bipolar, and dysthymia, cannabis exacerbates the symptoms and, in all probability, should not be used.
For anxiety disorders that involve panic attacks, social anxieties, or phobias, cannabis can increase the incidence and severity of these and even cause their onset for those genetically predisposed to developing them.
Sufferers of mild anxiety disorders who have other chronic symptoms that cannabis can be used to treat should do so under the careful observation of a health care professional.
In addition to the exaggeration of symptoms and frequency associated with cannabis use by those afflicted with mental health disorders, its use can also cause undesired secondary side effects and behavioral concerns.
Studies support higher rates of recurring hospitalization, abandoning other forms of treatment, and even incarceration due to criminal activity attributed to the use of cannabis by individuals with mental disorders.
In many such cases, though cause and effect may be difficult to ascertain, the combination of the two can lead to compound negative effects for the sufferer if they use cannabis.
Cannabis and its effect on schizophrenia and psychosis
Cannabis usage among individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia has been shown to increase the psychotic symptoms associated with the disorder. Symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking can become magnified with the use of cannabis.
Wayne Hall’s 2014 paper, which reviewed and compared evidence from the previous two decades of research on the adverse health effects of cannabis, referenced a 15-year study on sufferers of schizophrenia in which “those who had used cannabis 10 or more times by age 18 were 2.3 times more likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia than those who had not used cannabis,” says Hall. The risk for more severe symptoms was higher for schizophrenic cannabis users as well.
In Hall’s estimation, the risk of developing a psychosis was double for cannabis users versus non-cannabis users. Instead of a 7-in-1,000 risk for non-users, users had a 14-in-1,000 risk. It should be noted, however, that as much of the data is from more than 20 years ago, changes in diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia may skew those numbers, but overall it illustrates a statistically significant increase.
Cannabis and its effect on mood disorders
There is a wide consensus by medical practitioners and researchers that cannabis should not, under any circumstance, be used by individuals who suffer from mood disorders. These include but are not limited to repeated depressive episodes, major depression, bipolar disorders, and dysthymia.
Studies have shown that cannabis usage occurs 1.5 times higher in depression sufferers than the general population. This could be due to individuals seeking to self-medicate before having an official diagnosis, but it usually leads to worsening the symptoms.
Individuals that suffer from any of the bipolar disorders have been shown to have an increased frequency and duration of their manic episodes when they use medical marijuana as well.
Cannabis and its effect on anxiety disorders
Symptom severity and frequency of symptoms for individuals suffering from various anxiety disorders are increased by the usage of marijuana. Anxiety disorders include all types of social and general anxiety regardless of their severity.
It should not be discounted entirely that there are incidences of “bidirectional causality” between cannabis users and those who suffer from symptoms of anxiety disorders.
What this means is that some people seek the effects of cannabis due to their uneasiness about social interaction; as a result, they create a cycle where the symptoms of those same episodes are increased due to the cannabis usage.
Public health studies from both New York and New Hampshire show that the effectiveness of an anxiety patient’s treatment improves when their use of cannabis ceases. Other studies concur that the effectiveness of behavioral therapy also improves if the patient ceases consumption of cannabis.
The Other Side
For as many studies that can be found to suggest there is no benefit to cannabis and no place for it in the treatment of mental health issues, there is an equal number if not more anecdotal evidence that suggests the contrary.
Cannabis treatment has been an effective remedy for some sufferers of anxiety, especially PTSD when prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have proven ineffective. Treatment is, of course, unique to individuals and certain remedies work for some and are ineffective for others.
The bottom line is that cannabis is not the first thing to seek for mental health issues. If you have tried everything else, talk with your health care professional to see if your situation may be one of them in which cannabis can actually help your symptoms, instead of exacerbate them.