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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

New community-based research explores cannabis consumption during pregnancy and parenthood

Late last year, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) announced its funding of 14 community-based research projects to explore cannabis use in priority populations. All the initiatives address important and often overlooked groups in research, including youth, immigrant, refugee, ethnocultural, racialized, and Indigenous populations. One such group is pregnant individuals and parents, the focus of a unique research project based in Ontario.  

A fresh perspective
“To date, research about cannabis consumption during pregnancy and parenthood has been clinical in nature, emphasizing cannabis as a ‘risk’ and its association with ‘substance abuse,’” said lead researcher Allyson Ion. “Our team is taking a different approach by focusing on the experiential knowledge of pregnant individuals and parents. As people who consume cannabis, they are at the heart of the issue.”

In addition to people with living experience, the research includes providers in perinatal care and child welfare, along with other health- and social-care leaders who can share first-hand insights into the kinds of tools that may be needed to strengthen direct care practices and policies.

For Krista Benes, director of the MHCC’s Mental Health and Substance Use team, this inclusive approach is at the core of what sets community-based research apart. “The lens of first-hand experience is invaluable,” she said. “If we really want to understand the relationship between cannabis consumption and pregnancy and parenting, who better to involve than the individuals who live those realities every day?”

Expanding the conversation
Despite cannabis being the most commonly consumed substance during pregnancy, the stigma surrounding its consumption is pervasive. That stigma, the researchers fear, may hamper opportunities for honest and helpful conversations in health- and social-care spaces and create barriers for individuals seeking out information and support. 

“Many pregnant people and parents continue to experience surveillance around their cannabis consumption because of broader notions about what it means to be a ‘good’ parent,” said team member Saara Greene. Yet current research on the effects of cannabis consumption during the perinatal period is ambiguous, and health-care guidelines and practices are largely based on laboratory research using animal models and controlled clinical studies.

While the research team acknowledges that cannabis may not always be “harm-free,” they say more research is needed to determine the relationship between cannabis consumption and perinatal and parenting outcomes — as told by the parents themselves.

“There is a significant lack of research looking into the intentions and desired effects of cannabis consumption during the perinatal period and while parenting,” said team member Kelly Pridding. “We believe that more holistic, participatory, and community-based research approaches will go a long way toward dispelling myths and misconceptions and expand this important conversation.”

A knowledge-to-action framework
The initial phase of the research involves a series of dialogue-based sessions exploring different experiences and perspectives among the stakeholders on the intersections of cannabis, pregnancy, parenting, and mental health. Using a knowledge-to-action framework, researchers will then turn the feedback from those conversations into practical tools and recommendations.  

“The most exciting thing about this work is the potential to create real-world practice and policy applications,” said Ion. “Our goal is to develop concrete tools, practice approaches, and/or policies that can be applied in perinatal care and child welfare practice settings, ultimately strengthening the quality of care and reducing cannabis stigmatization in the process.”

As Benes sees it, this project represents an important new chapter in cannabis research. “We still have a long way to go in closing the knowledge gap between mental health and cannabis consumption in priority populations,” she said. “But every time we include those populations in the work that is ultimately meant to serve them, we make that gap a little bit smaller.”

With special thanks to research team members Allyson Ion, Saara Greene, Theresa Kozak, Gabrielle Griffith, Kelly Pridding, Claudette Cardinal, and Gary Dumbrill (in collaboration with the McMaster Health Forum). Team members wanted to specifically express their gratitude for MHCC funding and also acknowledge the financial support received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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