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Mental health

The role of medicinal cannabis for treatment of mental illness

Medicinal cannabis has great potential in the treatment of mental health disorders such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, due to its ability to reduce anxiety and psychosis.

Scientists know that cannabis contains more than 100 compounds, called cannabinoids, which have biological effects on the body. Medicinal cannabis can be prescribed for physical ailments such as pain and cancer symptoms, but cannabidiol (CBD) in particular, can also be effective in the treatment of mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.

Anxiety is a fear or worry that gets so out of control it starts to affect and interfere with normal life. It is an extreme fear about almost anything concerning the past or future. Anxiety is causes by a combination of factors including: changes in the brain, environmental stress, our family and upbringing, or a traumatic event.

Anxiety can include panic attacks, phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder, with symptoms ranging from unrealistic fear or worry that causes a physical response, mental unrest, panic, overthinking and racing thoughts, to sleeping difficulty, tachycardia, sweating, headaches and stomach pain. Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental conditions in Australia. On average, one in three women currently experience or will experience anxiety at some time in their life. For men, the statistic is one in five.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a particular set of reactions that can develop in people who have been through a traumatic event which threatened their life or safety, or that of others around them. This could be a car or other serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war or torture, or disasters such as bushfires or floods. As a result, the person experiences feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror.

People with PTSD often experience feelings of panic or extreme fear, similar to the fear they felt during the traumatic event. A person with PTSD can experience intense emotional or physical reactions, such as sweating, heart palpitations or panic when reminded of the event, unwanted and recurring memories of the event, sleeping difficulties, irritability and lack of concentration, avoidance behaviour, and feeling emotionally flat and numb.

The precise mechanism by which the endocannabinoid system modulates anxiety and depression is not fully understood. We see great potential for clinical trials of the cannabinoids in the area of mental health disorders such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Preclinical and early human research into the ability of cannabinoids to ameliorate anxiety and psychosis-like states such as those seen in post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia is already underway.

Upcoming research projects

  • PTSD clinical trial