Once again, it is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK – a week dedicated to raising awareness and promoting ways to improve our mental health. Running from 9-15th May, this year’s event will place a focus on ‘Loneliness’, whether at home, at work, or anywhere else. To honour Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, Shweed is taking a look at how people in the UK are benefiting from medical cannabis to improve their mental health.
This year’s theme, ‘Loneliness’, will undoubtedly strike a chord with many people across the UK, and around the world. Over the last three years, in particular during the Coronavirus lockdowns, many of us will have experienced feelings of loneliness and have been aware of how this can affect our mental health. Interestingly, during this time, the use of cannabis for medicinal and therapeutic purposes skyrocketed. So, what is the evidence for how medical cannabis can help to improve some mental health struggles?
Medical Cannabis in the UK
Back in November 2018, the UK government announced the rescheduling of cannabis to allow for its medicinal use, following numerous long-running campaigns. This policy change allowed specialist clinicians to prescribe medical cannabis products to patients with a variety of conditions – including some mental health conditions. While access in the UK remains largely dependent on private clinics, a growing number of people are beginning to benefit from the therapeutic potential of cannabis and its derivatives, including CBD and THC.
Medical Cannabis and Mental Health
While the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence still only recommends the use of medical cannabis for a small number of conditions (chemotherapy-induced vomiting and nausea, some forms of epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis), specialist clinicians are able to prescribe for a number of mental health conditions. Practically all of these prescriptions take place through private clinics, due to ongoing restrictions on NHS access.
So, which mental health conditions can potentially be improved with controlled medical cannabis use?
Anxiety affects the vast majority of us at some times in our lives. In fact, it is one of the most common mental health concerns in the UK, with prevalence particularly on the rise among young people. Some people may experience anxiety more often than others and for some, it can become a debilitating condition. More serious forms of anxiety may be diagnosed as conditions such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Currently, routine treatment options for anxiety include the prescription of antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIS), as well as behavioural therapies.
Over recent years, medical cannabis research has demonstrated a growing focus on the cannabis’s potential in the treatment of anxiety. Research suggests that the human Endocannabinoid System (ECS) – the primary target of many compounds found in the cannabis plant – may play a significant role in the regulation of mood – including feelings of anxiety. A number of studies have aimed to determine how various cannabis compounds (primarily cannabinoids including CBD and THC) may affect anxiety.
One recent observational study found that initiation of medical cannabis treatment was associated with significant reductions in anxiety and depressive symptoms. The researchers concluded that “Medicinal cannabis use may reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms in clinically anxious and depressed populations.” Medical cannabis may be prescribed for anxiety conditions by specialist clinicians through private clinics in the UK.
Healthy sleep is an important consideration for a healthy lifestyle; yet for many of us, this is increasingly challenging to achieve. It is estimated that up to a third of adults in the UK may suffer from poor-quality sleep, however, the prevalence of insomnia is also on the rise. Insomnia is usually characterised as having difficulty in falling or staying asleep. It can often have a significant impact on the patient’s work and social life. Insomnia may also be a symptom of other conditions, including PTSD, chronic pain, and other chronic illnesses.
Sleep conditions like insomnia are commonly also linked to anxiety, with the two conditions often co-existing. This make the potential of cannabis for the treatment of anxiety also relevant to insomnia. Furthermore, separate research has demonstrated that cannabis and cannabinoids may be effective in promoting healthy sleep. One study assessed the use of a medical cannabis preparation in a sample of patients with chronic insomnia. The researchers concluded that “cannabinoid extract (ZTL-101) is well tolerated and improves insomnia symptoms and sleep quality in individuals with chronic insomnia symptoms.”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Commonly referred to as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder is another relatively common, yet potentially debilitating mental health condition. It is believed that PTSD can affect up to 1 in 3 people who have a traumatic experience; this can include physical trauma such as car accidents and childbirth, physical and emotional abuse, the loss of someone close to you, and serious health problems. Common symptoms associated with PTSD include having nightmares and flashbacks, experiencing insomnia, and feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.
As previously stated, medical cannabis has been found to have potential on the treatment of both insomnia and anxiety – both of which are regularly also associated with PTSD. PTSD-specific studies have also found that medical cannabis could be useful in the management of other PTSD symptoms. For example, one systematic review found that existing evidence demonstrates that cannabis was associated with a reduction in overall PTSD symptoms and improved [quality of life].” However, the researchers note that the majority of existing evidence is of low quality and emphasised a need for more randomised controlled trials in this area.
And Many More…
Further research is continuing to examine the potential of medical cannabis in other mental health and psychiatric conditions, including depression and appetite disorders.
Overall, research into the potential of medical cannabis for mental health conditions is at an all-time high – as is the self-medication of cannabis for many of these conditions. Furthermore, medical cannabis may be considered on a case-by-case basis for the treatment of many of these conditions when first-line therapies have failed to prove effective.
Aside from medical cannabis, many people have turned to commercial CBD in the hope that it could help with mental health concerns such as anxiety, stress, and poor sleep. However, while anecdotal evidence continues to pile up, there still remains a lack of clinical evidence for the efficacy of these commercial products.
If you want to learn more about Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 and find out how you can get involved, visit the Mental Health Foundation website.