Bipolar disorder, equally likely to affect men and women, causes a person’s mood, energy, and mental clarity to vary wildly. Such fluctuation leads the person to experience waves of mania and depression. Most patients experience the onset of bipolar disorder around age 25, although teens and children can develop bipolar disorder at lesser rates than adults. In all, 2.6% of the U.S. population has bipolar disorder.
Four types of bipolar disorder exist, with symptoms ranging from feeling incredibly positive and energized, to depressed and lacking energy. Depending on the type of bipolar a person has, symptoms can include increased activity, sleep troubles, feeling agitated, fast-thinking, rapid speech patterns, and risky behavior. Others may find themselves feeling low on energy, unable to find happiness, unable to concentrate, experiencing a loss of appetite, and possibly considering self-harm.
Melissa Vitale runs a New York-based cannabis publicity firm. After struggling with her emotions her entire life, she was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “My uncontrollable mood would often let me feel like I was on top of the world. I was the happiest and most helpful child. When my mood turned, however, I felt a wall of emotion that kept me from seeing straight. I would be boiling with anger and wanting to punch, kick, hit, or insult anyone who wasn’t telling me everything was alright.”
By twelve, she turned to self-harm, which made her suspect that she had bipolar disorder.
With millions of people in America alone dealing with bipolar disorder, patients and physicians alike are always looking for the right course of treatment that can help a person. Some turn to marijuana to treat themselves. This is often done through illegal means—bipolar disorder is not a common qualifying condition for states’ medical cannabis programs. Despite this, a portion of people living with bipolar disorder insists on including cannabis in their treatment.
Some studies suggest this is not a viable method. A June 2017 University of Washington study on the Effects of Marijuana on Mental Health found that “marijuana use and cannabis use disorders are markedly more prevalent among those with bipolar spectrum disorders compared to the general population and those with any mental illness.”
The analysis noted reports stating the contrary, its study found several adverse associations. It said:
“With regard to bipolar spectrum disorders, marijuana use or use disorder is associated with worsened affective episodes, psychotic symptoms, rapid cycling, suicide attempts, decreased long-term remission, poorer global functioning, and increased disability. Bipolar patients who stop using marijuana during manic/mixed episode have similar clinical and functional outcomes to those who never use marijuana, while continued use is associated with higher risk of recurrence and poorer functioning.”
Dr. Paul Song is an authority on medical cannabis, in addition to serving on the national board of Physicians for Health. He pointed towards additional studies that suggest cannabis use is not recommended for people with bipolar disorder.
“Research has found that patients with bipolar disorder who use cannabis have increased manic and depressive episodes, poorer treatment outcomes and compliance, and present with their first manic episode at a younger age,” he said in a written response, also including the study linked here.
Despite the suggestions of some of the medical field, many people have turned to cannabis anyway. In some cases, people began using cannabis to treat the symptoms they wouldn’t discover to be bipolar disorder until much later. In others, patients turned to cannabis as a medical option when they were diagnosed.
Jeff Allen is a 27-year-old Cannabis patient from Ontario, Canada. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder nine years ago and began using cannabis two years after, at the age of 20. The musical theatre performer said his symptoms were so severe he couldn’t interact in public for nearly two years.
In a written response, Allen said that cannabis saved his life and changed his world. “During the extremes, high or low, it’s as if my brain is a car, and the gas pedal is being pushed to the floor. After medicating, it’s as if that pedal comes off the floor, and brings my brain back under the speed limit.”
Vitale found herself struggling in her early twenties before seeking help at the suggestion of her then-boyfriend. Even then, the confirmation of her condition was not welcomed. “It was a long hard road to get there, but once I did at age 22, I immediately detested the bipolar diagnosis, forgetting that I had properly diagnosed myself a decade earlier. My doctor, at the day of my diagnosis, told me that I had been self-medicating with cannabis all through college.”
She said her drive home from the doctor was filled with anger, but that would change after taking a hit from her bowl before leaving home for class. She was no longer incensed. “In 10 minutes and one packed bowl, my mood had done a complete 180. I knew the doctors and 12-yr-old Melissa were right: I was bipolar.”
Cannabis advocate and patient Mickey Nulf began using pot as early as 11 but was not diagnosed with bipolar disorder until roughly 13 years later. That said, the now-29-year-old feels like he knew something about himself much before the diagnosis. “I feel even when I was that young, I was using cannabis to help with something but didn’t quite understand.”
Nulf explained that for many years, his use would be in conjunction with prescribed pharmaceutical medications. However, he would choose to go with only cannabis around his diagnosis.
“I have chosen to continue using cannabis because pills have always been temporary fixes or numbing to life where cannabis has allowed me to experience life. For the first time. I am happier overall. My dips aren’t as low, and my ups aren’t as scary. I’m able to regulate and able to enjoy what is around me instead of letting the world pass me by.”
Cannabis business owner Olivia Alexander is another to swear off meds. She did so using CBD.
The founder of Kush Queen CBD products spent seven years combining pharmaceuticals to treat her bipolar disorder. She said this cycle left her immune system shot. Eventually, she’d begin using 100mg of CBD orally each day. She wrote how CBD plays a part in her care plan. “It was not as simple as pouring CBD on it, but with the combination of therapy, diet, exercise, and oral/topical CBD, I was able to come off medication.”
While Alexander and Nulf both chose not to use any pharmaceuticals, others have opted to keep both in their treatment plan. Alexander explained, “It’s important for me to note that in my experience, getting off meds is not the right choice for everyone. I have seen family members benefit from CBD in combination with prescription medications, overseen by a doctor.”
She added, “Mental health is not one size fits all and neither is CBD; however, it did work for me and change my life in the process.”
The bottom line is to be sure to speak with medical professionals before making any decisions yourself. Some may struggle to find answers through their physicians, thanks in large part to ongoing U.S. regulations. This problem can lead to a person not trying cannabis as a treatment. Or, they could end up trying it in a less-than-legal way.
“What I do is not sanctioned by the state that I live in,” says Vitale. “I purchase all my cannabis illegally, but the way I consume cannabis is not criminal. It saved my life and gave me the ability to be a normal human being.”
While that may sound fine, Vitale also emphasized that this won’t always be the case. She calls it “a beautiful allegory for life.”
“There are some days when my mood, no matter what I do, will be depressed. Just like sometimes no matter how much you plan, life just throws shit at you all at once. You have to wade through hell sometimes, but it will always, always get better.”