The link between cannabis and mental illness is not yet completely clear, and studies attempting to link marijuana use and depression have so far produced mixed findings.
Although many find it difficult to talk openly about mental health, depression is becoming increasingly common. The World Health Organization estimates that depression may affect close to 300 million people across the planet and suicide remains the second leading cause of death in young people aged 15-29.
Generally considered to be the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors, depression can be triggered by a stressful or traumatic life event, but the condition can also occur in people who have not experienced such things. On the other hand, many people who experience disturbing events never develop depression.
There are many forms of depression, and signs of depression vary greatly between individuals, but common symptoms include feeling empty, pessimistic, hopeless, or generally sad or down for more than a few weeks. Those with depression may also show less interest in activities they once enjoyed, and have trouble concentrating or falling asleep. It is also common for depressed individuals to report heightened or decreased appetite and experience either sudden weight gain or loss.
A depressive episode is classified as either mild, moderate, or severe based on the type and severity of symptoms. In severe cases, depression may lead to suicide. If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of suicide, please call 911 immediately. For less acute depression consult your PCP who may refer you to a mental health specialist for additional treatment and medication management.
What Causes Depression?
Depression is the result of a variety of social, psychological, and biological factors. Studies have linked drug and alcohol abuse, chronic illness, anxiety, and sleep disorders to depression. Those who have been diagnosed with another mental health problem such as anxiety, a type of eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or substance abuse are more likely to also be diagnosed with depression.
Those who are dependent on certain medications may experience depressed mood if they stop taking these drugs on schedule. It is also common for those who suffer from alcohol addiction to feel a noticeable decline in their mood after they give up drinking. However, depression can also be caused by a variety of other triggers, including hormonal changes following a major life event like giving birth. In fact, up to one in five women are estimated to develop postpartum depression after they give birth.
It is important that those who believe they may have depression consult with their doctor to rule out other conditions that may cause similar symptoms, and to set up an appropriate treatment plan that may include the help of an additional mental health specialist. The two most common forms of treatment for depression are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and the use of prescription antidepressants. In many cases, medication used alongside therapy is necessary in order to effectively manage depression.
What Is the Relationship Between Cannabis and Depression?
The link between cannabis and mental illness is not yet completely clear, and studies attempting to link marijuana use and depression have so far produced mixed findings. In some studies, such as this 2016 study, medical marijuana has been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression, and especially the symptoms of depression-related sleep disturbance. On the other hand, other research seems to suggest that those who use cannabis regularly are more likely to suffer from depression or other mental health disorders, but there is not enough sufficient evidence to directly link cannabis use directly to depression.
A report published by the American Medical Association pointed towards a higher prevalence of depression and other forms of mental illness in those who used cannabis, but it remains unclear whether or not cannabis use puts one at a higher risk of developing depression.
Another 2017 study published by the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment suggested that reductions in cannabis consumption may be associated with improved mood and sleep quality, but interestingly not quality of life. Although marijuana has long been linked to a lack of motivation, there is no substantial evidence to suggest that cannabis use leads to decreased motivation or function.
The major problem with all of these studies is that they are, of necessity in light of federal law, “bring your own cannabis.” This means that the subjects are left to their own devices about how, when, and how much cannabis to use. They essentially do this “off camera” so the dose, method, and timing are not known by the researchers. Ideally, of course, the researcher would not only specify these parameters, but also provide the medication, so as best to control the experiment. None of that is possible in most countries.
It is important that those who suffer from depression or a similar mental health condition consult with a physician before using medical marijuana. If you have depression, anxiety, or a similar condition, and are interested in using medical marijuana, consider speaking to a medical cannabis specialist who will be able to help you determine if medical cannabis may be right for you.
Jordan Tishler, M.D. is a physician, cannabis specialist, and faculty at Harvard Medical School. He is also the president of the Association of Cannabis Specialists, and CEO of InhaleMD — a private institute of cannabis medicine. He has spent years assisting patients with cannabis. For more information, or to set up a consultation with the team at InhaleMD, call (617) 861-8519.