Mental Health In New Zealand

Mental health statistics in New Zealand tell a troubling story, with 15.5% of men and 26% of women being diagnosed with a mood or anxiety disorder in 2018. These rates have been slowly increasing over the years and even children aren’t immune, with 6% of boys and 5.1% of girls aged 10-14 being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in 2018. Even the 2-4-year-old age group showed some anxiety diagnosis (0.9% boys, 0.6% boys). 

What is even more concerning are our suicide statistics, which have remained relatively constant over the last decade, with an average suicide rate of 11.4 per 100,000 people between 2007-2016. A 2017 UNICEF report deemed New Zealand to have the worst youth suicide rate in the world. Australia seems to be following a similar trend, with a 2014 study reporting that the number of antidepressant and antipsychotic medications prescribed to Australian children aged 10-14 increased by 35.5-49.1% over 4 years. 

Current Treatment Options 

Anxiety disorders can cover a wide range of symptoms and include panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and social anxiety disorder, all of which are debilitating and damaging to one’s overall quality of life. Anxiety sufferers can experience emotional symptoms, physical symptoms, and often have a higher substance abuse risk. Depression and bipolar disorder are also linked to anxiety and a combination of these disorders puts patients at a higher risk for suicide.

It’s clear that there is a mental health issue in New Zealand, and so treatments that could help ameliorate symptoms of mental illness in a safe manner could drastically improve the overall mental health of New Zealanders.

Current mental health treatment options largely revolve around synthetic medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like fluoxetine, citalopram, and sertraline for anxiety and depression. While these medications have shown success, their side effects can put patients at risk for non-compliance.

Side Effects 

One study found that 38% of SSRI users experienced side effects, the most common of which were reduced sexual function, increased sleepiness, and increased weight gain. While these might not seem too serious at first glance, they can all contribute significantly to patients not wanting to take their medications anymore, resulting in decreased mental health. As such, any medication that could safely treat mood disorders without affecting adherence levels would be preferred. Antidepressant use could also be risky for young adults and children, as one study of women aged 15-24 showed that suicide death often followed increased prescription antidepressant use. 

Cannabis And Mood Disorders 

Cannabis has long been touted for its anti-anxiety and mood-stabilising abilities and thanks to the upcoming cannabis referendum, cannabis treatment could soon be an option for more New Zealanders. 

One specific compound found in cannabis is gaining traction as an antidepressant, anxiolytic, and stress reliever. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a cannabinoid and one of the primary medicinal compounds found in cannabis. 

CBD is not responsible for the high associated with cannabis and as such, CBD extract is much more readily available for patients. While there is currently a limited range of CBD products in New Zealand, they are legal and no longer require Ministry of Health approval, and instead, they are treated as a prescription medication. 

Does CBD Actually Work?

CBD’s antidepressant-like actions are impressive. One study found that when mice were given either CBD or antidepressants, the CBD treatment resulted in antidepressant effects that were comparable to the antidepressant itself. 

Anxiety disorders seem to also be covered by CBD’s therapeutic effects. A 2011 study looked into CBD’s effects on anxiety and cognitive function. To test the effectiveness of CBD for participants with a social anxiety disorder, CBD was administered to participants prior to partaking in a public speaking test. The researchers found that participants treated with CBD demonstrated reduced anxiety levels, cognitive impairment and public speaking discomfort. 

How Does CBD Work? 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter chemical commonly associated with feelings of happiness, so it may not be surprising that CBD is thought to exert its antidepressant and anxiolytic effects through modulating serotonin production.

One mouse model study backed up this serotonin theory by finding that CBD administration resulted in an immediate increase in neurotransmitter levels, including serotonin. 

Another possible mechanism of CBD’s medicinal value for mental health is cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone known for its role in the body’s stress response and CBD has demonstrated some ability to reduce cortisol levels at certain doses. Cannabinoid receptors have also been shown to play a key role in reducing cortisol levels, with receptor activation resulting in a cascade response that ultimately limits cortisol production. 

Much like prescribed antidepressants, CBD has also demonstrated an ability to improve neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is how the brain adapts and changes to stressors or events. So by improving neuroplasticity, CBD may be able to create a healthier neural environment and a brain better equipped to cope with symptoms of mood disorders.

CBD Safety 

As with all potential medications, safety is a huge concern. However, a range of studies involving CBD treatment for mood and psychotic disorders found that CBD demonstrated a favourable safety profile, with minimal uncommon side effects such as tiredness and diarrhoea. In fact, CBD showed a safer profile than that of other mood disorder treatments, leading to the findings of one study concluding that CBD could improve patient compliance and treatment adherence when used alongside pharmaceutical treatments. 

And the good news continues for younger people suffering from mood disorders. One case study found that CBD helped to treat a 10-year-old girl’s PTSD symptoms with minimal side effects, showing that CBD could be offered as a safe treatment option for children with PTSD suffering from anxiety and dysfunctional sleep patterns. 


CBD is a safe and non-intoxicating compound that has demonstrated the ability to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Further research into the medicinal benefits of CBD will help us understand how it can be best used to improve the mental health of New Zealanders.

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