Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the UK. According to mentalhealth.org, depression is the predominant mental health problem worldwide. Nearly 20% of the UK population, aged 16 and over, showed some evidence of anxiety or depression, according to the 2014 General Health Questionnaire.
Following on from our feature by Simpa Carter last week about consuming cannabis for depression, today we want to take a detailed look at the cannabis vs depression argument, incorporating some UK patient stories as well as more studies in this area.
The growing amount of people suffering from some form of depression is evident in the fact that, according to a report from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), 61 million antidepressants were prescribed in the UK in 2015. That’s 31.6 million more than were prescribed in 2005, and up 3.9m, or 6.8%, on 2014.
The symptoms of depression can often be debilitating. The common mental disorder causes people to experience depressed mood, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, a loss of interest or pleasure, low energy, disturbed appetite or sleeping patterns and poor concentration.
If antidepressants worked, then why are prescription figures rising year after year? Surely there must be something which can better treat the symptoms of depression than pharmaceutical medications.
Once again, cannabis seems to hold up for treating depression and anxiety. In fact, cannabis has been used medicinally to treat depression for centuries.
History of cannabis as a treatment for depression
According to some scholars, cannabis has been used in treatments for depression since the ancient era. The earliest description of cannabis being used as a treatment for comes from the 22nd Century BC, from clay tablets in Sumer, where cannabis is described as being used for grief or “depression of spirits” (Thompson, 1949).
Even in the UK, we’ve been using cannabis as a treatment for depression hundreds of years. Robert Burton, an English clergyman, claimed in 1621 in his book, The Anatomy of Melancholy, that cannabis was useful in treating the symptoms of depression. In the 17th century, English physicians actually prescribed cannabis to patients with depression.
Modern-day use of cannabis for depression
If cannabis has been used historically to treat depression, then it stands to reason that the same should be true today.
According to a study from the University of Buffalo, “chronic stress reduced the production of endocannabinoids, leading to depression-like behaviour.” What this means in laymen’s terms is that the findings raise the possibility that cannabinoids (chemicals present within cannabis) may actually be suitable to reducing depression, especially when it is the result of chronic stress.
Basically, cannabis acts faster than traditional, pharmaceutical antidepressants, by stimulating the endocannabinoid system (the natural system which cannabinoids attach to), speeding up the development and growth of nervous tissue with little to no troublesome side effects for lots of people.
This natural alternative offers desperate patients peace of mind by battling stress by providing focus and energy, enhancing mood, increasing appetite, relieving anxiety and combating insomnia.
Cannabis as a treatment for depression: Patient feedback
We wanted to find out if cannabis truly can be used as an effective treatment for depression, and furthermore, whether it could replace the pharmaceuticals which are currently being prescribed at record rates in the UK.
From the responses we received, it became increasingly clear that cannabis is helping people cope with the symptoms of depression. Scott told us that his evening smoke helps keep the depression away: “A smoke in the evening always seems to help me fill my mind with happier thoughts, rather than worrying or feelings of anxiety.
“I think I would be depressed if I didn’t smoke cannabis!”
For some of our readers, cannabis has been a true saviour. Mary lost her baby and suffered severe depression as a result. She told us how cannabis helped her cope with the tragic loss: “I lost a baby not long back, and struggled a lot. I wouldn’t leave the house. I lay in bed all day but could never sleep at night, I was just constant thinking and crying!”
Fortunately, Mary’s boyfriend was able to get her some cannabis oil: “I was never happy, then my boyfriend got cannabis oil one night and got me to smoke it.
“I had never felt happier! For once I felt great in such a long time, it seems to have helped my anxiety too!
“I’m such a happier person inside again! I’m eating, going out and being active, and finally starting back into my routine again!
“My God it was the best decision I ever made. It made me a more understanding person, able to love the world a lot more, seeing it in a different perspective. Cannabis help calm me down a little, helped my mood and to open up more!”
Michael explained how cannabis helped treat his daily depression: “I suffer from depression every day, but I was never prescribed antidepressants.
“I didn’t change over to pharmaceuticals though, I just smoke cannabis and it makes me happier, to see the world in a better light, to dream bigger dreams!
“It helps a lot more than these actual drugs they [doctors] prescribe.”
This brings us onto one of the main issues surrounding the condition: the millions of pharmaceutical medications that are being prescribed to try and curtail the worst symptoms of depression.
Many of our respondents claimed that they have been able to ditch the pharmaceuticals, which often do more harm than good. Laura was able to swap a cocktail of pills for cannabis to help treat her depression: “For two years I was on 300mg of Quetiapine and 100mg of Sertraline. The doses kept going up and up!”
Often people make the swap from pharmaceuticals to cannabis due to the numerous side-effects that come with them: “The Sertraline made me nauseous, but the Quetiapine turned me into a zombie.
“I was sleeping 12-15 hours a day and still having an hour nap in the middle of the day. I would sleep through my alarms, miss my appointments and miss my days of contact with my son.”
Laura was forced to take this toxic combination of medication after she was raped: “I couldn’t be around males; my PTSD was caused by being raped.
“It was horrible. I was stuck inside all day, too scared to see anyone or communicate in any way!”
Again, cannabis provided Laura with a solution that the pharmaceuticals just couldn’t: “I had a friend come over for a smoke. She said that a good night sleep would help me relax more and smoking would give me that.
“I hadn’t smoked in years at this point, and the next thing I remember was waking up! I started buying some to help me sleep so I could cut down on the Quetiapine. I would roll a joint, take my tablets and be asleep before I finished the joint!
“Suddenly, I was able to walk to the shop at the end of the road without a panic attack! I hadn’t done it in over a year, every time I tried I had to run back home.
“I realised that weed was helping more than any pharmaceuticals ever had. I slowly cut down my doses of Quetiapine. I stayed with the sertraline, however, as I didn’t want to give them both up straight away. So, I stopped the one which made me a zombie!
Cannabis helped Laura to be human again, something which the medications had been denying her: “I started sleeping 10 hours instead of 15. I was able to make my appointments for before midday, because I wasn’t sleeping through alarms and I was waking up and getting up straight away. I wasn’t half asleep all day!
“Now I go shopping alone, I bathe daily, which I wasn’t able to at my worst. I cook, clean, I have a lovely boyfriend and the best part is… after giving my son up when he was 9 months due to my mental health, he’s moving back in with me over the Easter holidays! I couldn’t be happier!”
Stories like Laura’s highlight how important it is that we have a choice in our medication. While traditional pharmaceuticals may work for some people, they definitely don’t for others.
Jonathon Liebling, United Patients Alliance’s political director, told us how his depression worsened after his doctor advised he stopped smoking cannabis and instead relied on pharmaceuticals: “he put me on Fluoxetine (Prozac) and Diazepam to help with sleep. I became a zombie for a bit, so he upped the Prozac, which stands as the single worst drug experience of my life!
“Yes, they made me happy. But they made me happy with my suicidal thoughts too. Not good. Not good at all; not being happy with those keeps me alive!”
Thankfully Jonathon had previous experience with cannabis and returned to the natural alternative: “As soon as I reverted to cannabis, everything was much better!
“Those pharmaceuticals were trying to fix a problem they cannot fix. Cannabis helps me to fix the problem myself.
Elizabeth only recently made the decision to ditch her antidepressants: “I only recently came off the antidepressants after 6 months and Zopiclone (a very strong sleeping tablet) after 2 months.”
Elizabeth found that the medication she had been prescribed was too strong: “The medication, to me, was very strong and very risky as you don’t level out for a long time.
“Cannabis, however, is natural, multi-functional and, of course, a recreational pleasure as well as a mental health aid!”
One of the advantages of using cannabis medicinally, as opposed to pharmaceuticals, is the personal control patients have: “With medication, there are no half measures.
“With a spliff, however, you put it down when you’ve had enough, you generally know where it’s come from, and, it’s a plant.”
However, as with everything concerning cannabis’ medicinal properties, there is another side which must be looked into.
Does cannabis make depression worse?
A study from McGill University in 2007 found that THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, while effectively does works as an anti-depressant, this seems to be true only at low doses. According to the study, at higher doses, THC can reverse and even worsen the symptoms relating to depression.
While most cannabis advocates are quick to praise anyone or any study which supports the argument that cannabis can treat X, Y and Z, all-too-often our community dismisses the negatives stories, which are just as important if we are to fully understand cannabis on a scientific level.
Several of our respondents made comments which complemented the findings in McGill University’s study. Jonathon, mentioned above, made reference to how different strains had differing impacts on his mental health: “Some types of cannabis, those with very low/trace CBD can exacerbate anxiety and negative thinking.
“A little CBD-rich oil works for me as a supplement if I can’t get other strains.”
Rich, who was on pharmaceuticals for roughly 8-10 months, found that while cannabis helped to alleviate some of the symptoms of his prescription medications, in the long-run, cannabis was detrimental to his health.
“The pharmaceuticals didn’t seem to be helping my depression/insomnia. In fact, they exacerbated it more,” Rich told us. “If I was up, I would be really up, almost to a manic state, and when I was down, I’d end up sitting in my room for days on end not leaving.
“I Stopped taking the tablets, and started smoking more frequently. I noticed it helped with both concentration and sleep, although looking back now, it probably wasn’t so much ‘sleep’ as passing out because of the amount I’d toked that night!”
”I always thought I had everything under control while being a frequent cannabis smoker. However, and it’s only after I’ve stopped that I now realise cannabis wasn’t actually having the positive effect that I believed it was.
“I’ve been off cannabis for just over 6 weeks and my mood has stabilised, not that I don’t have bad days, as I still do, but I’m not as emotionally explosive and able to take the time to logically think things through and not react in a negative way almost instantly.”
Rich told us how particular strains made his mood worse: “A strong Sativa can send your mind racing and exacerbate negative thoughts, and can actually hinder sleep.”
Clark made similar comments about Sativa strains: “There are some strains, which if I am already feeling on edge or upset, can make me feel worse. Generally these are Sativa dominant strains.
“I find that this doesn’t happen with Indicas. When I get a falling sensation, and my mind is racing, I’ve found that this can be reduced with the right strain and made worse with the wrong one.”
Anne also told us how the stronger strains made her depression worse: “I mainly use cannabis resin to help treat my depression. Because its resin, and high in CBD, it works really well to counteract the psychoactive side of cannabis.
“I’ve found that strains with higher THC aggravated my depression, made it worse! So I’m for cannabis resin all the way! Or really low THC strains with high CBD content is the best way.
“I’d rather be illegally cured than legally dead!”
So which strains are best for treating depression?
So, academic studies and anecdotal evidence suggests that the best strains to treat depression will have a high CBD content with a lower THC content.
Leafly recently mentioned a few good strains for depression in an article, and here are some of our favourite: (read the Leafly article here).
- Jack Herer
2. Northern Lights
– A leading cause of depression is insomnia (the inability to sleep)
– Leafly says it’s a “perfect late-night Indica that brings a heavy, peaceful calm to both mind and body.”
– Many of our respondents commented that higher THC strains were a culprit of causing them anxiety, which in turn can cause depression.
– As mentioned in the McGill University study, if you’re going to deal with a high-THC strain, ensure you dose modestly. A relaxing Indica high, or a high-CBD strain, may be a viable solution to anxiety.
– Lavander, according to Leafly, “balances cerebral bliss with physical relaxation with a sweet lavender aroma that hints at this indicas high linalool potential.”
While cannabis can, and does, help many people alleviate some of the worst symptoms of their depression, we must remember that it can have the opposite effect in others. However, this may primarily be down to people trying to treat their depression with high-THC Sativa strains, which, as the studies suggest, can actually make it worse.
Patients have the right to choose their own medicine, especially when the pharmaceutical medications large multinational companies make don’t work (or make the patient’s life even worse). Patients in the UK are being denied this right. They’re also being denied access to information due to a lack of research into cannabis and its plethora of medicinal properties.
It’s time for the UK to take a step forward into modernity. It’s time for our politicians to represent the will of the people and afford sick, tax-paying, citizens some common decency by allowing them to make an informed choice on the medication they ingest. #LegaliseUK
By Miles Casey
You can also read our previous article Consuming cannabis for depression by Simpa Carter
Cover image source: Flickr user Ryan Melaugh