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Monday, March 7, 2016

Cannabis & Mental Health - by Joseph Dauphinais




     Medical cannabis has been proven to be a great treatment for a variety of ailments, and has a multitude of benefits which have been highlighted numerous times in many publications and web pages, including this magazine. But as with any other medication, there are side effects, of which any informed patient should be made aware. While there is no specific evidence that cannabis leads to any physical health problems, there are some studies which indicate that heavy use of the herb may have psychological consequences.

     How many times have you said, or heard someone say “I just need to smoke a joint” during a stressful situation? While there is some merit to that statement, at times smoking a joint is a temporary solution to a deeper issue. While the patient may be able to escape their troubles for a few hours, it does not directly solve any problems in the long term. Cannabis can be a wonderful way to unwind after a long day, and is an effective treatment for many ailments, with that list getting longer all the time. But if we use marijuana constantly just to escape reality, we run the risk of putting our problems and emotions on the back burner. Those issues may be forgotten for the time being, but they will still be there after the smoke clears.

     Part of the danger that occurs psychologically is that people sometimes (incorrectly) ‘self diagnose’ themselves and treat their symptoms in the way that they seem fit. While they should have the freedom to do so, the National Alliance on Mental Illness states that the best treatment of almost any mental disorder is a combination of medication and therapy. Many people use cannabis to ‘self medicate’ during times when they feel stress, anxiety, or depression. While this can be an effective method of relieving certain stresses, just like with other medications, triggers for these symptoms should be identified and talked about with a professional. Cannabis can be great for making a patient feel better in the short term, but psychotherapy can be beneficial for identifying what made the patient feel the need to medicate in the first place.

     If a patient medicates with marijuana on a daily basis, and abruptly stops taking cannabis, as with any other medication, they may experience detrimental effects. These effects are similar to those experienced by one who is quitting tobacco, including irritability, depression, anxiety, and sleep pattern disturbance. Another risk for those who have been treating anxiety and/or depression regularly with cannabis is that a sudden stoppage in cannabis use can cause a flood of emotions to return which have been masked for years or even decades. For some people, this could cause an emotional and mental breakdown.

     Although there is no reliable evidence that supports the idea that cannabis causes mental disorders, some studies indicate that cannabis may have the potential to exacerbate a previous condition. For example, one who is prone to schizophrenia may run the risk of increased paranoia, hallucinations, and hearing voices when using whole plant cannabis, and a number of studies, including one published in 2011 by Dr. Large and Dr. Sharma of the Mental Health Service Prince of Wales Hospital and School of Psychiatry, indicate that those with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia may start to show symptoms at an earlier age through cannabis use. Another study published in 2014 by Frontiers in Psychiatry indicates that while THC may cause this early onset of psychosis, CBD may actually be an effective treatment for schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

     Just like any other medication used to treat a mental illness, there is no single drug that is appropriate for every patient. For example, Xanax (alprazolam) has been an effective treatment for many suffering from anxiety disorders and panic attacks, yet it is not appropriate for every patient with these symptoms. Additionally, another widely prescribed medication, Seroquel (quetiapine) has been proven to be a capable medication for the treatment of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and manic episodes, yet to some patients the negative side effects they experience outweigh the benefits that might be gained from this medicine. What’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander.

     One mental condition, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was added to the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana in Michigan back in 2014. Most common among combat veterans, the National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as a “disorder that develops in some people who have seen or lived through a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” Symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, feelings of “fight or flight” reactions even when they are not in danger, and anxiety-related panic attacks. Many of those who suffer from PTSD find that by utilizing cannabis, they gain a more restful sleep, with the advantage of reduced flashbacks and nightmares often associated with the condition. Those who discuss their condition with a therapist are even more likely to reduce their symptoms.

     A modicum of caution is recommended when starting any new medication, including cannabis. According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, studies have shown that in low doses, THC can be an effective mild sedative. At higher doses however, especially of the sativa varieties, cannabis can induce intense episodes of anxiety. For those who are prone to anxiety attacks, it is best to go slow and low. For first time cannabis patients, it is wise to have a more experienced patient present until you get accustomed to the effects of the medicine.

     If you suffer from any kind of mental condition, there is no ‘magic pill’ that will make everything better, including cannabis. Exercise, a balanced diet and sufficient sleep can work wonders for anybody. Meditation and breathing techniques can be done for free by anyone regardless of age or disability. Speaking with a therapist, or a trusted spiritual guide can also be beneficial.

     Please keep in mind that this article is for informational purposes only, and should not be used to treat or diagnose any condition. It is not meant to encourage or dissuade anyone from using any type of medicine. If you or a loved one is feeling depressed, experiencing racing thoughts, acting out of character, or showing any other signs of mental illness, please seek professional help.

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