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Has pandemic raised South Africans’ stress levels by 56%? And is cannabis the answer? Two claims in news article checked

The Citizen website suggests CBD, a compound of cannabis, as a way to reduce stress, in an article that says the stress of South Africans is up 56% since the start of the Covid pandemic. But there’s little evidence for either claim.

  • The Citizen suggests that readers “try CDB” – the cannabidiol compound in cannabis – as a way to relieve stress, in an article headlined “South Africans’ stress levels up by 56%.”

  • But the 56% figure is from a limited, unrepresentative online survey of just 1,200 people conducted by a drug company.

  • And while initial research looks promising there’s still no evidence that CBD treats stress or anxiety, and certainly not at the doses legal in South Africa.

The South African government has extended the country’s state of disaster by another month. It is now set to end on 15 April 2022 – 25 months after it was announced. 

Since the Covid pandemic began, almost 100,000 people in South Africa have died from the virus, with roughly 300,000 excess deaths recorded. 

A recent article on the Citizen news website put a number to the effects of this period on mental health. The headline reads: “South Africans’ stress levels up by 56%.”

The February 2022 article attributes this to the “unpredictability and uncertainty” of the past two years. “In fact, SA citizens’ stress levels are said to have increased by 56%,” it says.  

The article also offers tips to relieve the tension, including asking readers to “try CBD” or cannabidiol, which it says “has proved time and again” to relieve stress. Cannabidiol is a natural compound in the cannabis plant.

Have South Africans’ stress levels increased by 56%? And is cannabidiol an effective treatment? We fact-checked the two claims.

Claim

South African citizens’ stress levels up by 56%.

Verdict

Misleading

The author of the article told Africa Check that the statistic came from an online survey of 1,200 people about the mental health impact of Covid-19 in 2020. 

The survey was conducted by Pharma Dynamics, a Cape Town-headquartered firm that sells pharmaceuticals said to manage the symptoms of anxiety and other illnesses.

The survey results are summarised in a news briefing on the company’s website with a headline similar to the Citizen’s: “South Africans’ stress levels have shot up by 56% since start of pandemic according to survey.” 

56% increase is not supported by survey results

Pharma Dynamics sent Africa Check the survey questions, which included two on levels of stress, and some of the results. 

The first question asked participants to select which “areas of life” the pandemic had impacted. One of these was labelled “experienced higher levels of psychological and emotional distress than before”. Of the people surveyed, 56.2% (or 689 people) indicated that they experienced this. In other words, 56% of the people in the survey said they had experienced higher levels of distress.

Another question asked participants: “Has your stress level increased since the start of the pandemic?” Here, 57% of participants said “yes”, 29% said “somewhat” and 13% said “no”.  

But neither of these results support the claim that stress levels in South Africa “increased by 56%”. 

Africa Check spoke to Debbie Kaminer from the University of Cape Town's Department of Psychology, who has published several articles on anxiety and related mental health issues in South Africa. 

She confirmed that on the basis of this survey “we can’t conclude that stress levels have risen by 56%”, but only that this share of participants “perceived that their stress levels were higher during the pandemic than before”.   

To determine changes to stress levels during the pandemic, another survey of stress levels would need to have been done before the pandemic, and these results then compared with the current survey results. This would allow any changes in stress levels to be measured.

Survey results not representative of South Africa’s population

But there’s another problem with the survey. The results – that 56% of people surveyed said they were experiencing more stress – are not representative of South Africa. 

A spokesperson from Pharma Dynamics’ PR company said the survey was advertised online. They did not ensure that the people who completed the survey were representative of the larger South African population in terms of race, gender, age, class or other demographic traits. (Note: Learn more about why this is important here.

This means the results are unlikely to apply to people outside of the study. In other words, it is not accurate to make a claim about the larger South African population based on the results from this sample. 

“Given the platform on which the survey was distributed, we can expect it may not be fully representative of, for example, non-English language speakers or those without resources to access online sites,” Kaminer said.

Lack of South African research on pandemic and stress 

Other research has looked into the mental health impact of the pandemic. For example, the World Health Organization recently reported that globally, there were 25% more cases of anxiety disorders in 2020 than there were before the pandemic. 

But researchers caution that little data from low- and middle-income countries was included and results may not be applicable to those places.  

There is also a dearth of South African research on the topic. Kaminer told Africa Check she was “not aware of any studies that have compared stress levels in South Africans pre and post pandemic”. 

A South African study by the Human Sciences Research Council looked at over 12,000 people at the beginning of the pandemic and found that 60% of them had reported being “frequently stressed”, with 45% “scared”. 

This does not give an indication of increases in stress, but does reveal the prevalence of stress. The data in the survey was weighted to make it representative of the South African population.

Claim

It is proven time and again that CBD helps relieve stress.

Verdict

Unproven

The article suggests “four tips to relieve tension” from the pandemic. One of these is trying CBD, which according to the article has “proved time and again that it helps to relieve stress”. 

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a natural compound in the cannabis plant which does not, by itself, produce the “high” usually associated with cannabis. 

CBD might help treat stress or anxiety, but more research needed

As part of the recent boom in medical cannabis research, scientists have begun to investigate the potential therapeutic benefits of CBD. The most promising effects found to date are in treating epilepsy. Preliminary research is also investigating CBD to help manage a range of psychological symptoms. 

Few randomised controlled trials (RCTs) – a type of study considered the gold standard in medical research – have been conducted investigating the potential of CBD in managing stress or anxiety.

Some results have looked promising, but studies have had several drawbacks, from small sample sizes to only looking at the short-term effects of CBD. 

No evidence for CBD’s effectiveness in legal doses in South Africa

Research on the topic has been conducted with varying doses of CBD, but these are usually between 400 to 600 mg. This is far higher than the daily doses usually recommended in CBD products.

According to Jeffrey Chen, medical doctor and founder of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, the 5 to 25 mg CBD doses commonly found in CBD products “may likely be inadequate” in reducing symptoms of illness. 

In South Africa, this problem is compounded by the legally controlled doses of CBD in such products. A CBD product can be bought without a prescription if it contains less than 600 mg CBD and the maximum daily dose is not more than 20 mg. 

This means that even if CBD could be effective in reducing stress or anxiety, which is uncertain, there is not even early evidence to suggest it may be effective in the currently legal doses.

Ultimately, as Chen says, when it comes to using CBD as a treatment, “even if you took dozens of servings to reach the dosage used in these clinical trials, there is still no guarantee of benefit because of how preliminary these findings are”. 

Read our standalone analysis on this topic for more information and expert comment.

Further Reading

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