Cannabis has been found to temporarily relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD and OCD – but is not a long-term solution, say researchers.
Cannabis is often stigmatised for being detrimental to mental health.
But people living with common mental health issues including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) have reported that cannabis use has reduced their symptoms by more than half in the short-term.
Studies conducted by a team at Washington State University, led by phycology professor, Dr Carrie Cuttler have analysed data from hundreds of people who recorded their symptoms before and after cannabis consumption using the tracking app Strainprint.
Findings published in Journal of Affective Disorders earlier this year showed that in people who self-reported as having PTSD, cannabis reduced the severity of intrusive thoughts by about 62%; flashbacks by 51%, irritability by 67%, and anxiety by 57%.
A follow-up study, published in October, reported that users with OCD reported that cannabis reduced their compulsions by 60%, intrusions, or unwanted thoughts, by 49% and anxiety by 52%.
The studies have also looked at a number of variables but rarely found differences in the efficacy of cannabis with differing levels of THC and CBD – apart from in depression where a lower level of THC and higher CBD seemed to be most effective in reducing symptoms.
The size of the dose also did not appear to matter, suggesting that even micro-dosing could be beneficial.
Dr Cuttler has carried out a number of studies using data from Strainprint, to analyse the acute and long-term effects of cannabis on mental health.
“We have looked at the acute effects of cannabis on depression, anxiety, symptoms of PTSD including intrusive thoughts and flashbacks and symptoms of OCD, including intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours,” she told Cannabis Health.
“We see a general theme that immediately after using cannabis most of the symptoms of these conditions are reduced by just over 50 percent.
“Typically their starting symptom level is rated as somewhere between six and seven and their ending symptom level is rated in between three and four.”
However, researchers have also found that there is no indication that cannabis reduces symptoms in the long-term, with the severity of symptoms remaining constant over time.
“The bottom line is that it can work as an effective mask of the symptoms temporarily but it’s not benefiting the individuals in the long term,” said Dr Cuttler.
“Using cannabis repeatedly over time is not going to ameliorate these conditions – I refer to it as a band aid in that it temporarily masks the mental health symptoms – making people feel better while they’re experiencing the acute effects of the drug, but then those effects wear off and the symptoms come back.”
She continued: “This leads to this state of negative reinforcement, where people return to the drug to get those beneficial effects, but are putting themselves at risk of developing a tolerance to the drug and veering into problematic cannabis use.”
Although some of the literature suggests that cannabis can exacerbate the symptoms of depression over time, there is no evidence to indicate that it aggravates those of anxiety, PTSD or OCD.
According to Dr Cuttler, the association of cannabis as having a negative impact on mental health could be the result of how data has been interpreted.
In her earlier research she found the top three reasons given by patients for consuming cannabis were pain management, followed by depression and anxiety.
“For years this positive correlation between cannabis use and mental health problems has been interpreted in potentially the wrong direction,” she said.
“Part of the reason that we see this association is because people with mental health issues are drawn to cannabis because it is reducing their symptoms temporarily, which is bringing them back again and again to self-medicate with cannabis.”
While she recommends that people access more effective mental health treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Dr Cuttler feels patients shouldn’t be stigmatised for turning to cannabis to relieve their symptoms in the short-term.
“As a psychologist I recommend that people seek out CBT to properly address the underlying issues of these disorders and to address the root core of the problem instead of using this superficial mask,” she added.
“But sometimes we just need a break and I don’t think we should stigmatise people for this.
“They just need to be educated about the fact that it’s not a long-term solution and we know there are better treatments out there.”
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