Did you know that nearly 1 in every 5 Americans suffers from a form of mental illness? In most circumstances, this is a lifelong battle riddled with prescription drugs and sometimes even recurring hospitalizations. With the plethora of health benefits cannabis offers, what affect does it have on mental illness? The answer is more complicated than you would think and is, unfortunately, overcome with misinformation and poor interpretations.

Aside from marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug which makes research incredibly difficult, marijuana is an extremely complex plant with over 100 different cannabinoids and 140 different terpenes, all of which have their own unique functions and some of which buffer or enhance other compounds provided by the same plant. To muddle the matter even more, the concentrations of each of these can vary from one strain to the next.

Misinformation and Misinterpretation

One of the most frustratingly inaccurate perceptions that abounds today is the idea that cannabis causes mental illness. This myth is predominantly the result of making inferences from correlational relationships.

People assume that because a certain percentage of reported cannabis users have a mental illness that their illnesses have been caused by cannabis

Because these reports include many who are self-medicating with cannabis to treat their illness, the inference is not only incorrect, but skews perceptions to create bias.

Cannabis and mental illnessUnfortunately, in many studies, due to the restraints of working with a substance classified as a Schedule I drug, there is a fundamental inability to properly structure participants to include a more accurate representation of the populace over a long period of time, leaving us with information flawed by bias. In fact, not only do we lack valid, unbiased evidence that supports the idea that marijuana causes mental illness, but marijuana is proving to be a viable treatment option for anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, OCD, PTSD, and substance addiction. Associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, Zach Walsh, is quoted as saying. “This is a substance that has potential use for mental health. We should be looking at it in the same way  [as other drugs] and be holding it up to the same standard.”

What Do We Know About Cannabis and Mental Illness?

Let’s start with the endocannabinoid system (ESC). The ESC is a body-wide network that creates chemical reactions that control mood, metabolism, immune function, pain, and even reproduction. When this network is imbalanced, it can wreak havoc on any number of systems within your body- including your mental health due to its vital role in triggering the serotonin system. According to Dr. Ethan Russo, neurologist and Medical Research Director for Phytecs, “The endocannabinoid system, it is sort of a buffer– a buffer is something that will work both ways as need be. So, for example, in the endocannabinoid system, one of its main roles in the brain is to regulate neurotransmitter function and again, if there’s too much of one kind of neurotransmitter it will bring it down, if there’s too little it will bring it up.”

The many cannabinoids in cannabis act on this system and promote homeostasis within the ESC.  Each cannabinoid plays a different role and some have been specifically identified in anecdotal research as being particularly effective for certain treatments.

Low doses of THC appear to be highly effective in addressing both anxiety and depression while CBD has been found to effectively fight anxiety.

In addition to cannabinoids, cannabis offers another important set of phytochemicals that impact our well being, terpenes. Terpenes can act as cannabinoids themselves or act as an enhancer or buffer for other cannabinoids. For example, one of these terpenes, Beta-caryophyllene (BCP), engages receptors in the body’s immune system that have a strong effect on social behavior. Another, the myrcene terpene, has been shown to be a powerful anti-depressant. When these terpenes are combined with the full-spectrum of cannabinoids and other phytochemicals provided by cannabis, there is a excellent anecdotal evidence that cannabis is a powerful tool in fighting anxiety and depression resulting from many types of mental illness.

How Do We Best Use This Tool?

The more pungent smelling and colorful the cannabis is, the more diverse the array of terpenes and cannabinoids. Because we know that the effects of cannabinoids and terpenes are amplified by each other, seeking out raw cannabis and mental illnesscannabis that fits these criteria, provides the most powerful effect on the ECS. The effects also seem to be optimal in low doses delivered over time. As far as the method of consumption, consuming raw cannabis can provide a wide variety of benefits without the altered mental state induced by activated THC or utilizing edibles, vaping, or smoking can be highly effective for garnering the full spectrum of benefits cannabis offers.

At the end of the day, we still have a great deal of research to do and huge strides to make in conducting studies without bias on a large scale

We don’t fully understand all aspects of the ECS or all of the ways cannabis contributes to maintaining homeostasis in the ECS, but we do know that there is significant promise in using marijuana to treat a wide variety of illnesses, including those that disrupt our mental health. In order for us to make progress toward fully comprehending the benefits of cannabis, we need to do away with perpetuating skewed conclusions from past research and focus on conducting the well-structured and non-biased studies that can only be conducted by removing it from the list of Schedule I drugs and making cannabis widely available for laboratory research.

Amber Faust

About the author: Amber Faust is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in natural lifestyle pieces and sociopolitical commentary. Amber is a lifelong activist for social justice and environmental issues. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, painting, drumming, meditation, and yoga.