Editor’s note: This commentary is provided by the Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative (MMERI) of Florida A&M University.
The holidays are known as a time of togetherness with festive activities and family gatherings.
The year 2020, however, looked very different from past holidays because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Celebrating the season while staying positive and mentally healthy was undoubtedly be a challenge for some.
According to a recent Gallup Poll, Americans’ latest assessment of their mental health is worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades.
In 2020 in Florida, there has been an increase in the number of Floridians getting approved for a medical marijuana ID card through the Florida Department of Health’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use, which lists some mental health disorders as qualifying conditions to get the card.
Tips and resources
With some people turning to marijuana to cope during these trying times, the Florida A&M University (FAMU) Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative (MMERI) is providing tips and resources to address the stigma of mental health and marijuana use in the minority community.
We know research shows that some people turn to marijuana to cope with the stress of life. However, in Florida, recreational marijuana is illegal while medical marijuana use is not. By partnering with mental health professionals, we are educating people about the legal and health implications between the two.
During this holiday season, our aim was to create a safe space for these taboo topics to be talked about more openly and peel away some of the stigma.
Demystifying mental health
Dr. Martha Wisbey, who serves as the assistant clinical director at Impact Behavioral Health, says asking for help is hard.
“Mental health concerns are an important issue to address, whether it be you or a family member. In minority communities, mental health has a stigma attached to it, and the stigma can stick, and folks are scared,” said Wisbey.
“I want to encourage people to demystify it and find someone that can help you start feeling healthy again,” she said.
Licensed psychotherapist Dr. Ischaji Robertson said the whole idea that mental health is considered a ‘disorder’ makes people think something is wrong with them, especially if they want to go talk with a professional. Instead, he says, it’s the opposite.
“It demonstrates a lot of strength and character to go seek help,” said Robertson. “We want people to understand it’s not a problem and we are here to help them.”
Recognizing warning signs
Licensed mental health clinician Dr. Alishea Rowley urges everyone to pay attention to the warning signs connected with mental illness such as self-isolation, loss of joy and difficulty managing emotions.
“Thoughts are like seeds that are planted. As we go along the day, we don’t realize how those seeds are being watered and they can grow into negative thoughts that we don’t attack,” said Rowley.
“I call it ‘stinking thinking’ and what happens is they grow throughout the day and they can cause marked disturbances in our mental health,” she explained.
Dr. Rowley says paying attention to your body is the first step in detecting a mental health problem.
She also suggests tuning into your body and recognizing when something doesn’t feel right. If you notice yourself feeling anxious or not being able to fall asleep at night, you may have a problem.
Dr. Gwendolyn Singleton is the director of the Center for Ethnic Psychological Research and Application at FAMU. She said data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows a significant increase in mental health challenges, specifically related to anxiety.
She said the CDC’s report also found increases in the initiation of substance use due to COVID-19, most notably in individuals between the ages of 18 to 24, African Americans, Hispanics, frontline workers, and caregivers.
In her research examining marijuana, mental health and neuropsychological outcomes, Dr. Singleton found that under certain conditions, some individuals were at a significantly increased risk for misusing marijuana.
“There’s research that talks about increases in anxiety, psychosis, and respiratory problems.
A lot of individuals feel that using marijuana will help them relax,” said Singleton.
“Actually, the research suggests that there may be some initial relaxation effects, but then there’s a rebound effect.”
Mental health needs to be paid attention to, diagnosed, and treated like any other disease.
Find a licensed mental health professional in your area or talk with your doctor.
You can also learn additional tips and coping strategies by watching the “Conversations on Cannabis” Mental Health video series by visiting MMERI Forum Radio on YouTube.
Dr. Patricia Green-Powell is the executive director for the Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative (MMERI) at Florida A&M University.