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People With Depression Are Turning to Pot for Relief: Study

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter
HealthDay News

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TUESDAY, Dec. 17, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- People suffering from depression are often desperate for anything to break them out of their debilitating mood disorder.

But in their misery, many might be turning to a risky solution that's likely to make their condition even worse -- marijuana.

People with depression are twice as likely to be using pot as those who aren't depressed, researchers reported in the current issue of the journal Addiction.

"Cannabis use has increased rapidly among persons with depression, and this increase has been more rapid than among those without depression," said senior researcher Renee Goodwin. She's an adjunct associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, in New York City.

In 2017, about 19% of people with depression said they had used pot in the last month, compared with about 9% of others, according to an annual government survey on drug use among Americans.

Daily cannabis use occurred in 7% of people with depression compared to 3% of those without the mood disorder, the investigators found.

The researchers said this might be happening because marijuana is gaining a reputation for being harmless.

Depressed people who see no risk linked to regular use of pot are much more likely to use it than those who consider it significantly risky -- 39% compared with about 2%, Goodwin said.

"With increasing legalization in the U.S., previous studies have shown that perception of risk associated with use is declining overall," she said. "The results of this study show that this decline is even more rapid among this vulnerable population."

Experts said the problem is that marijuana's effects actually are more likely to worsen depression than relieve it.

"We have no evidence whatsoever that marijuana helps in these psychiatric disorders but, nevertheless, people believe it," said Dr. Andrew Saxon, a psychiatrist with the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System, in Seattle.

Symptoms of depression that might be heightened by marijuana include lack of motivation, listlessness and isolation as well as a lack of pleasure and interest in things people used to enjoy, said Dr. Scott Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y.

"People who are depressed may be more likely to take risks," Krakower said. "They will go out on a limb hoping this agent may help them."

Saxon cautioned that this was an observational study, so the exact relationship between depression and marijuana use can't be fully understood from these findings.

He said it might be that instead of turning to marijuana to relieve depression, cannabis use actually causes depression among typically healthy people.

It also could be that people using pot enough to be dependent on it mistake symptoms of withdrawal as depression, Saxon added. These symptoms might include disturbed sleep, depressed mood or decreased appetite.

Krakower and Saxon said they're most concerned about depressed teens who might turn to pot to help them.

"There's no evidence marijuana is good for the teenage brain, and there's accruing evidence that it's bad for the teenage brain," Saxon said. "Depression or not, teens shouldn't be using marijuana."

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about depression.

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