In recent years, the use of marijuana as an unofficial treatment of mental illnesses has been on the rise.
The chemical properties of cannabis produce effects that can temporarily act as a mood enhancer, which may produce short-term relief of symptoms in disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety cluster disorders.
The chemical composition of cannabis makes it an ideal short-term combatant of mood-related symptoms.
Despite this, research indicates that long-term use of marijuana in conjunction with mental illness may lead to worsening of the disorder. This suggests that self-medication may not be as effective as it initially seems to many people living with these disorders.
The neurobiology of cannabis and why people self-medicate
Although medical cannabis is available on a prescription basis in some parts of the United States, its limited availability in other areas may drive people to use recreational marijuana in unregulated dosages in order to self-treat mental illnesses. There’s also an overall stigma associated with mental illness that may cause people to hide their illness, preferring to treat on their own terms instead of seeing a professional. Normalizing mental illness to some degree may help encourage affected people to seek other forms of treatment under the supervision of a mental health professional rather than dealing with the illness alone.
The documented effects of marijuana rise from the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC. As a dopamine agonist, or a chemical that binds to dopamine receptor sites and produces the same effect, THC produces a general sense of well-being and relaxation. This can temporarily combat anxiety and depression, although medical cannabis is not widely available in all areas for this purpose. These properties are present in natural cannabis sativa. The chemical compositions are significantly different in synthetic cannabis preparations such as dronabinol, and in designer drugs meant to mimic marijuana, such as spice. While spice and other designer drugs are highly unregulated and unsuitable for self-medication, synthetic dronabinol is regulated in countries including the United States and Germany, where it is available on a restricted basis for the treatment of certain ailments.
Interactions with mental illness
The consensus of mental health professionals and researchers is that self-medication of mental illness may be ultimately detrimental. Although marijuana produces short-term relief of depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders, the long-term psychiatric effects of cannabis are linked to increased risk of depression and anxiety. For users who are already suffering from mood or anxiety disorders, long-term self-treatment may actually lead to worsening of symptoms.
Self-medication is distinct from personal, casual or social marijuana use and can be riskier. While casual or social users tend to use marijuana infrequently and only in certain situations, people who use cannabis medicinally without the guidance of a medical professional will likely begin to rely on it to control their symptoms. The increased use of cannabis in the presence of mental disorders causes increased anxiety and mood disturbances. It is possible that this is the result of THC fulfilling the role of dopamine in the brain for too long, interfering with actual production and reuptake of dopamine naturally. Other issues may be the potential for abuse or addiction. Although cannabis is not chemically or physically addictive, anyone can become psychologically addicted to nearly any behavior or substance, including cannabis. The more often a person uses a substance for a purpose such as self-treatment, the more likely it is that he or she will begin to rely on it in an unhealthy way. Even if the cannabis alone does not exacerbate symptoms in a particular patient, using it to the point of dependency can worsen the disorder and complicate eventual treatment.
Despite its chemical potential in short-term relief from anxiety or mood disorders, studies from the British Journal of Psychology and the Journal of Psychiatric Intensive Care suggest that the risks are greater than the benefits when it comes to self-medicating with marijuana. In all cases, people who suspect that they may have a mental disorder should seek the assistance of a mental health professional for treatment, especially when self-treatment may be more harmful than beneficial in the long term.