An Expert's Insight on Using Cannabis for Mental Health

Jenn Dowdy, MSW is an incredible activist in the cannabis community. I first met Jenn at the 2016 Women Grow Leadership Summit in Denver, CO and was enamored by her shining energy and warm yet strong personality. Jenn has a Masters in Social Work from The University of Georgia and has worked as a research assistant, pharmacy technician, substance abuse counselor, child protective specialist, and is now the National Chapters Director at Women Grow. Jenn is also a medical cannabis patient in California whose mental health is improved by the plant. 

"Cannabis can change the way you see problems and can help in finding really great solutions. Microdosing with cannabis has helped my over all energy level and cognitive function. Now when I'm put in really stressful situation I know I'll be able to creatively problem solve and work through it no matter how complex. What I've really realized is that many problems exist in the mind, and through thoughtful use of cannabis I can re-train my mind to see no problems but to only see pathways to liberation." -Jenn Dowdy, MSW

Today, Jenn has graciously taken the time to answer some of our most pressing questions about cannabis and mental health, and we are thrilled to be able to share her expertise with you! (Be sure to check out her 12 tips for maintaining mental health on a regular basis - number 4 is our favorite!)

In regards to holistic wellness, how important is mental health?

Mental health is measured by one’s psychological and emotional wellbeing and is incredibly important in handling the ebbs and flows of life. Maintaining an emotional equilibrium plays a key role in our body’s response to illness and general bodily functioning. Mental health also plays a critical role in how well we respond to others. 

I like to think of mental health as the internal temperature gage of emotion with the most key component being the mind. We are learning more about the importance the mind plays in overcoming obstacles and getting ahead in life. Grieving is ok, being mad is ok, having fear is ok, but when those things take over the mind and control our behaviors in the long-term, that’s when there becomes a problem. Learning to regulate our emotions is key. 

Humans have the power to change the pathways in our brain that dictate behavior. We do this by doing new things and having new experiences, by training ourselves to think differently. This is a serious shift from the way we once thought about the brain and its role in our lives. We once believed that we were stuck and that our destiny was set before we were born. This simply is not true. We carry around lots of things: trauma, beliefs about our self-worth, etc. The great part about the brain is that we can change how it functions, and thus change our destiny. We can “re-wire” those negative thoughts into positive ones. 


How can we maintain our mental health on a regular basis?

The stigma around mental health is still pretty severe, especially for men, who rarely seek help; however, I encourage everyone to seek professional help if they feel stuck or are having feelings of hopelessness. Even an occasional check-in with a support group can bring major gains to your overall health.

Here are a few quick tips to help maintain good mental health:

  1. Get adequate sleep. Listen to your body. Everyone is different but no one should be sleeping more than eight hours per day. If you are and are feeling depressed, seek help.

  2. Hang out with positive friends often. Do physical activities together like play volleyball or go for a hike.

  3. Get rid of things or people in your life that don’t serve your highest self. I call this social housecleaning. Every 6 months or so I assess the people and things in my life to make sure I’m on track. You really are an average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. Who are you giving your time to? Raise the bar for your friends and inspire them to be stronger too!

  4. Let it go. Everything you can’t change, let it go. Worrying is pointless in most cases and it causes the fear responses in your body to be activated, which leads to negative stress. Don’t do it. Take a deep breath and let it go. This relates to you having the power to control your mind. Don’t go off the rails about small stuff.

  5. Meditate as often as possible (twice daily is recommended).  

  6. Your outer world influences your inner self. Discipline creates habits and good habits are the base of positive change. Start taking care of the little things that you think don’t matter, like make your bed every day, cook at home, etc. I’m all about that self-love!

  7. Change environments to gain perspective. Sometimes taking a day trip to the beach or hopping on a plane to the nearest city can have profound effects on your mental health by literally giving you a new and fresh perspective on life.

  8. Do one thing that makes you happy, every day. This could be as simple as taking a walk to your nearest park or sipping your favorite tea. Commit to really being in that moment - put cell phones aside and be in that moment of happiness.

  9. Live life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The older I get the more I know this to be true. Those things you find so pressing can probably wait while you soak in a tub with bubbles and smoke a joint. Change doesn’t happen overnight so be ready to commit to the journey not the destination.

  10. Randomly help a stranger. You will gain more out of it than they will. Stay humble.

  11. Find the good in everything and everyone. The less ammo you use the better. Learn how to pick your battles. Believe that everyone has the best of intentions, even if they don’t. The truth will eventually show and you don’t need to pry to find it.

  12. Commit to trying something new as often as possible. While maintaining safety and reasonable boundaries, learn to become a “yes” instead of a “no” person.You will change mental beliefs about who you are and what you’re capable of doing.  

As an expert in social work, how have you seen cannabis benefit mental health?

Research is beginning to emerge that shows states that have medical cannabis programs are seeing a decrease in prescription drug use. Not only are the number of deaths from opioid overdose lower in states with legal cannabis, but fewer drugs are also being prescribed by physicians. This is huge data. More research is needed, but if this trend continues this means that cannabis will replace most of what is in our medicine cabinet, as well as other recreational drugs.

Micro dosing is a technique for consuming where one takes small doses of cannabis throughout the day to maintain optimal functionality. Dose and frequency can vary by patient. I have seen this consumption method really work for those suffering from depression, especially with the correct strain.

Cannabis helps in our overall mental functioning by challenging old, negative belief systems people have. Anyone who smokes will tell you that they feel more prepared to face challenges and they are more creative in their approach to those challenges.

How does prohibition affect patients’ mental health?

I envision a future where dispensaries replace methadone clinics and cannabis harm reduction becomes a widely used model to treat substance abuse. Not surprisingly, states that have defunded substance abuse treatment facilities correlate with cannabis prohibition states. It is a sad disservice to those communities. Everyone should know about the positive benefits of cannabis.

It’s important that we recognize the effect the War on Drugs has had on patients and communities of color. People in prohibition states still face jail time, stigma from the community or being in violent situations to obtain cannabis for treatment. This added stress to accessing medicine is a fear that no one should not have to face. We now collectively understand this as a public health crisis and not a criminal one.

Patients in legal states now also have to worry about losing access to the correct dosing they need in order to treat their illnesses. Even in legal states, poor policies are being written that limit dose amount and remove medical patient programs altogether. Advocates must continue to fight for patient’s rights, even as we move into a legal space. This movement started out to help seriously ill patients like those suffering with HIV/AIDS with little to no treatment options. We must continue to fight for patient’s right in both legal and prohibition states.

What type of research should we be focusing on to improve our understanding of cannabis and mental health?

The research I look forward to most would be randomized, controlled clinical trials, pharmaceutical companies conduct when they submit a new product on the market. I’m also looking forward to more longitudinal studies that can speak to more long-term affects of use. Additionally, understanding the 61 chemicals specific to cannabis on a micro level will become important when we begin to look at treatment options. We simply don’t know what is out there yet because we have only scratched the surface.

What I hope does not happen is that data is kept from the public. We made that mistake with pharmaceutical clinical drug trials. As data begins to emerge, the most important things to consider are who is funding these studies, are they independently funded or funded by an organization that has an agenda?

I’m fascinated by terpene research and the various combinations that positively affect mental health. My favorite strain is Durban Poison because it helps me stay on task, focus and elevates my mood while not being too psychoactive. I understand Durban Poison’s terpene profile, but I’d love to know more on a micro level. There are many implications for use. I’m also fascinated by the Entourage Effect and look forward to more data on this. I know of many individuals who have healed themselves from serious illnesses by using full-plant extracted oil. We now need the data to back it up in order for more patients to benefit from this amazing plant.

Copyright © 2016 Kristen Williams + Jenn Dowdy, All Rights Reserved