World Suicide Prevention Day: Can cannabis decrease the risk of suicide?

Canadians with PTSD who use cannabis as medicine are 60 per cent less likely to experience episodes of depression

By Barbara Shaw

2019-09-10

Canadian Armed Forces veteran Cayman Heath witnessed some horrific things during his time in the military. He is among the 10 per cent of the Canadians living with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

When he left the military to become a priest in the Anglican church, he was involved in a serious car accident. It happened while he was taking a youth group on a camping trip.

The physical trauma left him with a brain injury, which compounded the symptoms of tension, anxiety and sleeplessness he was experiencing from his PTSD. As time passed, his symptoms became debilitating.

“I was unable to function,” he says. “I would wake up at 3 a.m. after having nightmares and find myself crawling around on the floor, looking for dead bodies. I’d do a few shots of vodka to calm down and everything started to spiral from there.”

While working with a counsellor and using a combination of meds and therapy, Heath was presented with the possibility of trying cannabis.

A 2018 study by researchers at the British Columbia Centre for Substance Use found that Canadians with PTSD who used cannabis as medicine were 60 to 65 per cent less likely to experience episodes of depression. Medical cannabis users are also less likely to experience suicidal thoughts thanks to cannabinoid receptors in the brain which mitigate the effects of depression.

According to Canada’s Department of National Defence, 15 Canadian Armed Forces veterans committed suicide in 2019. More are turning away from prescription drugs and to cannabis to treat symptoms.

But the stigma remains, says Heath.

“I am a priest and there’s stigma with drugs but then I started asking people about it and I thought it might work. Many of my senior parishioners let me know they were adding CBD oil to their morning coffee, so I decided to give it a try.”

Heath now manages stress, seizures, anxiety and sleep disorders with cannabis products. And that’s likely the reason Heath says he now feels comfortable in his own skin.

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Dr. Hymie Anisman is a professor and Canada Research Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience in Ottawa. His research assesses stress and affective disorders, such as depression and post-traumatic stress.

When asked about the effectiveness of cannabis as a treatment for PTSD he says not enough is known – yet. “Restrictive cannabis laws mean we are way behind on the research.”

What we do know is that stress from recalling traumatic events causes inflammation in the brain. Ainsman explains there is some thought that inflammation contributes to the fear response experienced by PTSD sufferers.

Ainsman says more research is needed to understand the specific biomarkers of PTSD. And which chemicals in cannabis might be able to specifically target the desired response.

But as part of a broader treatment regimen, Ainsman believes cannabis shows promise.

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Jake Sampson has been doing psilocybin to deal with his PTSD. He has been doing this on his own.

Repeated trauma as a first responder left him with all the classic symptoms – anxiety, night terrors. And a desire to withdraw socially. Using small amounts of mushrooms, he says he is coming to terms with the trauma.

“This has allowed my brain to go places that it didn’t want to go,” he explains. “Things that I had repressed seem more rational, they seem less scary.”

He says mushrooms “gave me an opportunity to have that moment of clarity where I could revisit incidents in my head and come to terms with them, without the intense anxiety and guilt. It also relieved my nightmares.”

Sampson says he also did therapy, but he didn’t disclose his drug use to his doctor.

He says, “I was fortunate to discover this tool and it helped.”

Heath is also feeling better after using cannabis and re-framing some of the traumatic memories he has lived with over the past years.

With an improvement in sleep quality, a reduction in general anxiety and no more need to use alcohol to stay calm, he says he’s feeling stable for the first time in years.

“I don’t know if I’ll be better,” Heath explains, “But my life is starting to take shape, and this is starting to help me grow into a new person. I can sleep, I feel stable and I can function.”

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