Five reasons not to treat depression with weed

We recently spoke with two people who, on the recommendation of a therapist, have been using cannabis to manage their anxiety and/or depression

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We recently spoke with two people who, on the recommendation of a therapist, have been using cannabis to manage their anxiety and/or depression. One person said their therapist recommended cutting out stimulants like coffee, but weed was encouraged as a great tool to help with anxiety. We were interested and concerned to learn of a health professional giving out this kind of advice, especially to vulnerable people who may just be seeking a quick fix.

Now, don’t get us wrong, we talk to people every day who are struggling because their depression or anxiety has become worse even though they are taking anti-depressants and attending counseling. Some of them feel cannabis is giving them at least some short-term reprieve. We also talk to people who can’t understand why they should be prescribed manufactured pharmaceutical drugs over something they believe to be natural, like cannabis.

And while every case is different, we speak to many, many people who have tried using cannabis to treat depression and anxiety and found their symptoms getting notably worse. Or perhaps more troubling, using cannabis to treat these issues on the advice of a friend, ignoring family suggestions their symptoms are worsening and health deteriorating, and only realising the negative impact cannabis is having on their mental health years later.

Others have noted their depression and anxiety has markedly improved once they quit or cut way down.

Finding the right solution is important. No one should have to deal with the often debilitating daily effects of depression or anxiety. There is some early research into the treatment prospects of some components of cannabis for mental health issues. At this point, no solid evidence supports cannabis use, and in fact, much of the available high-quality research suggests cannabis use has a negative impact on mental health.

So why not use cannabis to treat depression or anxiety (other than no solid research supporting it)?

1. You can’t measure it

The therapist (and the patient) have no way of measuring the potency or dose of the weed they’re using. While CBD (a component of cannabis) may potentially be used to help treat anxiety in the future, unfortunately the science just isn’t there yet to know for sure. Whole cannabis plant in Australia has been shown not to contain CBD. At the same time, THC is believed to stimulate areas of the brain responsible for feelings of fear, which for obvious reasons, is not at all helpful for a person already suffering from anxiety.

Unless they have access to sophisticated lab equipment, the therapist and their patient will have no idea how much THC or CBD is in each dose of cannabis they smoke, and this can vary between batches anyway. Basically, it’s like telling someone to go and find their own medicine to treat themselves, and then decide how much to use on their own, without knowing any of the ingredients of the substance they are taking.

2. Cannabis could actually be making the problem worse

According to scientific literature, people who use weed have higher levels of depression and depressive symptoms than those who do not use cannabis – this is not necessarily a statement of cause, but there is a link there. 

Frequent or heavy use in adolescence can also predict depression or anxiety later on in life – especially for girls. In the short-term, cannabis often causes anxious feelings in users. It’s even considered an important risk factor for anxiety disorders, so until more is known about the drug, it’s really not a good idea to be experimenting with it at home if you’re already anxious or depressed.

3. It can lead to dependence

Even if using cannabis seems to alleviate symptoms in the short-term for some users, it can lead to delay in getting appropriate treatment and to the additional problem of addiction if used regularly. The longer and more frequently someone uses weed, the more and more they will need to get the same effect. This doesn’t treat the cause of the problem and can lead to a range of other health problems further down the track.

4. It could be a trigger for even bigger problems

Scientific evidence suggests cannabis use can trigger the onset of schizophrenia and other psychoses in those already at risk of developing it. You and your therapists will not always be aware of your personal genetic vulnerability to schizophrenia or other contributing risk factors when suggesting marijuana as an anxiety or depression treatment. For more information about cannabis and psychosis, see our factsheet.

5. Everyone reacts differently to the drug

Even if some people report feeling better or more relaxed after they’ve had a joint, this is not going to be the same for everyone. Many people report feeling more anxious and paranoid immediately after using weed, and some even experience panic attacks.

If anyone recommends using an illicit and unproven substance to help treat a serious mental health condition like anxiety or depression, you should always look for a second professional opinion.

Like anything, just because someone says weed has worked for them or someone they know of, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.

In an ideal world, we would all love a solid solution to anxiety and depression, but unfortunately the evidence for cannabis just isn’t there at this point. To read more about cannabis and mental health, check out our factsheets, Cannabis and Mental Health and Cannabis use, Depression and Anxiety.

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