Can I Treat My Mental Health Diagnosis with Cannabis?

Upset woman crying at therapist session, sharing her problem with attentive specialist, psychologist comforting lady, free space
Upset woman crying at therapist session, sharing her problem with attentive specialist, psychologist comforting lady, free space

The short answer is, it’s highly unlikely that you could treat mental health with cannabis. The longer answer is that cannabis and its impact on mental health is complicated, many of the studies we have are in their infancy, and it’s difficult to say how cannabis will impact any given individual. In fact, the active ingredients of cannabis like THC and CBD can have a different impact on the body based on your genetics, where the plant comes from, and even your weight. For many, that makes the short and long-term effects of either unpredictable. This means that the results one person sees from cannabis can be vastly different from the effects another person sees. It also means that early effects of cannabis can be a placebo effect – which quickly vanish.

Cannabis and Anxiety

Cannabis is most-often used to treat anxiety – with CBD and THC each being used to treat anxiety at low doses. This usage is based on valid research, in which CBD or cannabidiol, is shown to reduce anxiety by binding to receptors and modulating serotonin uptake. That functions in a similar fashion to the most popular class of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. However, if you smoke cannabis rather than taking a CBD supplement – THC and other contaminants come with the drug. In addition, while 78.1% of patients in a study showed improved symptoms of anxiety over the duration of the study, 19.5% showed increased symptoms. In addition, this study was combined with behavioral therapy – with no real way of seeing whether decreases in anxiety came from the therapy or the drug.

However, research is positive about CBD’s ability to favorably impact anxiety. Even with 20% of patients experiencing increases in anxiety, it compares to SSRIs. However, these are still better in terms of functionality, in that most SSRIs fail to work for 15% of users, rather than 20%.

In addition, self-medication is significantly likely to contribute to substance abuse and use disorders. For example, most people who use a substance to self-medicate take the substance following an episode or problem. E.g., when you smoke after experiencing a stressful episode, smoke to prevent an oncoming anxiety attack, or smoke to destress from work. Eventually, people start using to prevent anxiety, they become anxious if they don’t have cannabis on hand to prevent anxiety, and they become anxious that they will have an anxiety attack if they don’t smoke – forcing them to smoke. This vicious cycle of behavioral addiction is common in many types of anxiety treatment and eventually results in problematic usage and worsened anxiety.

Cannabis is Not a Prescription Drug

Cannabis is not currently a prescription drug. However, there are some prescription CBD products. In most cases, people attempting to use CBD or cannabis to treat mental health disorders are not doing so on the recommendation of a doctor. Instead, they are self-medicating. Often, self-medicating means using a drug to attempt to fix a problem and for it to go away, with none of the work and time investment of going to therapy, getting behavioral therapy, and working on behavior patterns and underlying issues. While some users do combine the two, this often is not the case.

So, people using cannabis to treat a mental health disorder might be reinforcing the base problem and practicing avoidance. That means cannabis can genuinely worsen the problem, because even if it does mask symptoms, it’s just covering them up and not working as an actual solution. Long-term, that’s equally, if not more problematic.

Cannabis is Addictive

photo of Cannabis cbd hemp seeds flour

Cannabis has a low addiction profile. That drops even further for individuals switching to CBD patches or other CBD-only products. However, for those smoking cannabis, 1 in 5 daily users eventually show symptoms of cannabis use disorder. Most importantly, cannabis use disorder is heavily associated with existing disorders. Individuals with a mental health disorder or a personality disorder, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, are significantly more likely to have problems with cannabis use disorder. That means the people most likely to try to use the drug for self-medication are also the people most likely to become addicted to the drug.

Marijuana Increases Anxiety at High Doses

While most people are going to start trying to treat mental health disorders with a low dose, that tends to escalate over time. Tolerance, familiarity, and enjoyment of the drug lead to increasing dosage sizes. Eventually, cannabis at higher doses contributes to paranoia, increased anxiety, and impulsive decision-making. This can lead to worsening mental health problems, eventually negating any positive effects the drug might have had. That can be a dangerous slippery slope for many, especially without a Risk Evaluation and Management Strategy (REMS) in place to help them manage it.

That doesn’t mean you’ll always have problem using cannabis for mental health. CBD has shown a great deal of promise in treating anxiety, in reducing seizures, and in calming other symptoms. In higher doses, other active ingredients in cannabis can cause significant negative effects. For example, THC increases anxiety and paranoia.

Unfortunately, there are over 500 active ingredients in cannabis. Most of them are poorly understood and even more poorly documented. The two main ingredients, CBD and THC aren’t even fully understood. However, that doesn’t mean they are bad. But, like with any other medication, it’s never a good idea to try or take that medication on your own or without supervision. If done incorrectly or carelessly, that can result in misuse and addiction. That’s especially true considering mental health problems greatly increase vulnerability to substance use disorder and addiction, including to prescription medication. It’s important to ensure you have guidance and a monitoring program in place to keep you safe if you try or attempt any new medication. That includes things like cannabis.

In almost every case, it’s a bad idea to start using a potentially addictive drug on your own, to treat a mental health disorder. Getting mental health treatment, talking to your doctor, going to therapy, and working on behavior, coping mechanisms, and your support structure are always the better call. If you do need help, reaching out and asking for it will always be healthier than using a non-prescription drug to cover up the symptoms.

If you have questions with mental health treatment, Compassion Recovery Center is here to help. Contact us to ask about our mental health programs and how we can support your specific requirements as you move into treatment.

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