Mental Health and Cannabis: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Scores of people use cannabis to treat their mental health conditions, whether using a state-approved ID or by self-medicating on the illicit market. A lack of conclusive data remains due to federal restrictions, limiting understanding the plant’s true efficacy. People in need aren’t waiting for that day to come. Instead, they are going off anecdotal evidence and the available scientific data to justify their self-medicated treatment plans.
We’ve come to find out that many of these cannabis-based regimens have alleviated symptoms in several health conditions. However, in some, cannabis could prove to be either ineffective and even detrimental to the person’s well-being.
For this series, I spoke with medical professionals and those suffering from mental health conditions to better understand how cannabis plays a part in people’s treatment. While this won’t provide the conclusive data the market needs, it will hopefully shine a more focused light on how cannabis affects people and their conditions.
The public has noticed PTSD more in recent years thanks to an increased awareness by returning veterans and trauma survivors. Today, we are more knowledgeable of the condition that has common symptoms such as flashbacks, hyper-alertness, avoiding people and places, negative thoughts and a heightened flight or fight response.
Col. Dr. Philip Blair is a family physician. He is also a consultant in disease management as well as the medical director of Pro Health Advisor and the CBD brand Elixinol. Dr. Blair is also a graduate of West Point’s 1972 class. He noted that with PTSD, scientific evidence shows that there is an imbalance in cannabinoid receptors in the brain. This includes a 2013 New York University study that discovered a connection between cannabinoid quantities and PTSD.
While the first study to examine the clinical benefits of CBD for PTSD patients began in May 2019, many doctors warmed to cannabis as a treatment option years ago. That includes Col. Dr. Blair.
For the past five years, Blair has helped patients with PTSD using organic hemp-derived CBD. “I’ve seen some stunning results,” he said. “I’ve conducted pre-clinical trials with veterans with PTSD with cannabidiol, and in many cases, within a week of including CBD oil as part of a daily routine, participants reported sleeping through the night, reduced anxiety, and feeling calm and peaceful.”
Dr. Mandeep Singh is a psychiatrist at the Apollo Cannabis Clinics in Toronto. He has over a decade of experience treating veterans, first responders, and civilians. He elaborated on the condition. “PTSD involves changes in the pathophysiology of the brain as well as dysregulation of neurotransmitters which the endocannabinoid system can play a role in,” he explained in an email. He also noted how medical cannabis can stimulate this system, alleviating many of the symptoms of PTSD.
For the past three years, Dr. Singh has utilized cannabis as a treatment option. “I have seen great results in terms of controlling PTSD symptoms when regular pharmaceutical medications were not improving their symptoms and were causing negative side effects,” said Dr. Singh.
With PTSD patients, Dr. Singh says medical cannabis use is encouraged when traditional treatment options like when selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), antipsychotics and sedative medications, for example, do not work. Even when these medications work, they can have significant side effects.
“In the veteran population specifically, some of these patients may have tried 10 or more medications and be on a combination of pharmaceuticals. With medical cannabis, I see veterans reducing their pharmaceuticals, sometimes even able to eliminate them, because of their medical cannabis use,” noted Dr. Singh. He added that cannabis can also help PTSD patients connect with their emotions, which can help the therapeutic process.
The First-Hand Accounts
The effects of PTSD are hellish on its patients, often depriving them of sleep, the ability to work, manage pain, or live a life without anxiety. In many cases, it has driven people to take their own lives. With people seeking solutions, cannabis has become one of the preferred treatment options.
The Veteran Farmer is an organization that grows and consults in Canada’s medical cannabis space. Founder Lloyd Farmer compiled answers from several veterans who gave their permission to share their experiences for this story. Each set of answers appeared to mirror the other. Combat and several deployments led to the previously mentioned pains that come from PTSD. Each veteran opted to use cannabis to address their pain.
One unnamed person detailed how cannabis changed their life. “I went from six or seven pills a day [multiple doses] to no pills,” they wrote. Another anonymous veteran wrote, “I will never go back to pharmaceutical meds again.”
The group appeared to show no regret in their cannabis use. When asked if they had the option, would a veteran choose marijuana as a treatment option again? One person wrote: “I wouldn’t wait as long before trying it.”
In the United States, former Green Beret Adam Smith has taken up a similar mission to help Veterans and first responders. The 17-year veteran has never been officially diagnosed with PTSD but wrote via email he experiences all the symptoms. Smith used cannabis to self-medicate. This includes during a 2015 bicycle ride he was doing with a friend and fellow PTSD patient to raise awareness for the condition.
“During that trip, it was the first time that my counterpart and I were completely disconnected from the military and were in a state where we could try cannabis to treat symptoms,” described Smith. “We went to a dispensary and bought cannabis legally. The effects were absolutely astounding.” He reported experiencing a pleasant sleep, no anxiety and the ability to process information slowly.
Smith found himself in a state with no cannabis allowance after his ride completed. He stopped using marijuana and was without any medication. Smith turned to alcohol to sleep, and in order not to feel. He couldn’t find work and attempted to take his own life. This was the lowest point, Smith recalled.
Eventually, he turned a corner and began to feel better. “Once I had a new mission brought forward, a way to provide for my family, and serve a purpose, I began to find light. Once CBD became legal, I immediately began using it. It increased my clarity 10x and ability to speed my recovery.”
Today, Smith works as an advisor to the R&D company Allied Corp., which focuses on creating cannabis health solutions for veterans with PTSD.
Zoey Bullock, also known as Betty Chronix, experienced PTSD at a young age after being raped when she was 12. She explained the ordeal of having to locate her attackers with police and the impact of having a parent with alcoholism.
She turned to cannabis for treatment at a young age. “Not long after going through trauma, my friends from the neighborhood introduced me to cannabis,” she explained. “The doctors had me on a number of medications that made me even more depressed to the point where I would cry my eyes out unbearably. Cannabis was the only thing that gave me relief to be able to cope with my symptoms.”
The following years would be a combination of psychiatrist visits and multiple antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, which she said did not work. At 14, she attempted to take her own life. By the time she graduated high school, she was working two jobs, living on her own, putting herself through college, graduating with an MBA and a 3.97 GPA. She also quit her medications cold turkey.
Today, the 26-year-old mother of two is a global cannabis strategist and has a medical recommendation she uses to manage anxiety and other symptoms. “[Cannabis] will almost immediately help to calm down my panic attacks and flashbacks,” she added.
What to Keep in Mind About Cannabis and PTSD
Cannabis can prove itself to be part of a viable treatment option for PTSD sufferers in some cases. Dr. Singh pointed out how it can serve as an adjunct treatment option in addition to pharmaceuticals as well as psychotherapy and social support. He reiterated how it can be a good option for those who failed pharmaceutical therapy for a number of reasons. That said, each case is different. “All factors that have to be considered as the goal is improving the quality of life with this disabling condition.”
Today, scores of trauma sufferers have turned to, or are considering, cannabis. While medical professionals recommend medication remain in treatment plans, some patients have made the choice to cut them out altogether. Whether this choice is effective or not may come down to the feedback the patient provides.
“I wish I had the choice when I was a young teenager for cannabis to be a medical treatment option,” explained Bullock. “It really has been the only thing to give me hope for healing from PTSD.”