April 1, 2021
For Immediate Release
KITCHENER – Amar Ghelani, who is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University, has been awarded the Hilary M. Weston Scholarship by the Government of Ontario. The scholarship will support Ghelani’s research about the effects of cannabis consumption on young people with mental illness, including better treatment options for youth experiencing cannabis-induced psychotic episodes.
The Hilary M. Weston Scholarship, established in honour of the province’s 26th lieutenant governor, is awarded annually to two Ontario graduate-level social work students in the area of mental health. Ghelani received $7,500 toward his studies.
“Winning this scholarship is bringing attention to the issues that I’m focused on and the marginalized populations that I work with,” said Ghelani, who is currently working as a mental health care coordinator at the University of Toronto while completing his PhD at Laurier. “There is substantial evidence that cannabis can trigger or exacerbate symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia in young people who are genetically predisposed to these illnesses, have a history of trauma or frequently use high-dose cannabis.”
Throughout his career as a social worker, which has included work in shelters, addiction treatment facilities and prisons, Ghelani has regularly counselled young people struggling with cannabis-induced psychosis or schizophrenia, yet who continue to actively use the drug.
“We know that if someone has already had a psychotic episode and continues to use cannabis, they have a higher risk of worsening symptoms and hospitalization,” said Ghelani. “Alternatively, by stopping or reducing cannabis use, there is potential for them to recover or regain better functionality.”
After observing that the health-care system is not adequately treating these individuals, Ghelani was inspired to study the factors that motivate regular cannabis use in order to find more effective harm-reduction strategies. He completed a review of existing academic literature and found that the most common reasons for mentally ill youth to continue using cannabis are to relax, enhance positive experiences, manage stress and negative emotions, including depression, along with dependence, habit and influence from peers.
“There is also a strong social component for young people who are seeking acceptance,” said Ghelani, who is also exploring how cannabis use can become a core part of someone’s identity and impact their relationships with peers, family members and health professionals. “They often find community in groups of fellow cannabis users who may be more empathetic to their experiences, know what it’s like to disconnect from reality and are more accepting of diverse mental health issues.”
With the support of the Hilary M. Weston Scholarship, Ghelani is planning to conduct a qualitative study examining the high rate of disengagement between youth and mental health service providers.
“What is it about the way we are engaging with these young people that makes them decide not to continue talking to us?” said Ghelani. “What I’ve learned so far is that as health-care professionals, we need to conduct comprehensive assessments and try to understand what’s motivating their behaviour before prescribing a solution. We need to make it clear how our services can help them and be more open to harm-reduction options. For example, physicians could consider prescribing CBD-based cannabis products to this population, similar to how we use methadone.”
“Amar's research is timely, as it investigates the increased availability of cannabis in Canada and the clinical concerns raised by mental health professionals who are dealing with many unexpected consequences,” said Robert Basso, associate dean of the Bachelor of Social Work program at Laurier and Ghelani’s PhD supervisor. “These populations can be particularly difficult to reach but, as the principal investigator, Amar is well placed with years of experience and connections among service providers and consumers alike.”
Ghelani is the fourth Laurier student to win a Hilary M. Weston Scholarship since 2017.
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