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Can Drug Abuse Cause Schizophrenia?


The connection between drug abuse and schizophrenia is complex. Certain drugs may increase the risk of triggering schizophrenia symptoms or worsening existing symptoms linked with the disorder. The American Addiction Centers notes that while substance abuse does not cause schizophrenia, chronic use of alcohol or drugs may increase the frequency of psychotic episodes. In this blog post, we will take a closer look at the relationship between drug abuse and schizophrenia.

What Is Schizophrenia?

The American Psychiatric Association defines schizophrenia as a chronic brain disorder that when active, may include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, trouble thinking, and lack of motivation. Contrary to belief, schizophrenia does not mean a split personality or multiple personalities in a person.

Schizophrenia Symptoms

Schizophrenia includes a range of issues concerning thinking, behavior, and emotions. Typically, signs and symptoms vary but include the following:

  • Delusions: Beliefs that are not true.
    • Examples: Believing you are being harmed or harassed; having fame; someone is in love with you; a major catastrophe is about to unfold
  • Hallucinations: Seeing or hearing things that don’t exist.
    • Examples: Hearing voices or sounds; seeing objects, lights, or people that are not present
  • Disorganized Thinking (Speech): Disorganized thinking is inferred from disorganized speaking.
    • Examples: Impaired effective communication; answering questions with unrelated responses; putting meaningless words together (word salad)
  • Disorganized or Abnormal Motor Behavior: Unusual behavior that can make completing tasks difficult.
    • Examples: Childlike silliness; unpredictable agitation; resistance to instructions; bizarre posture; excessive movement
  • Impaired Daily Function: The reduced or lack of ability to function normally.
    • Examples: Neglecting personal hygiene; appearing to lack emotions (no eye contact/facial expressions); loss of interest in everyday activities

Symptoms may vary in presentation and severity over time. There may be periods of worsening or remission of symptoms or some symptoms may always be present.

Schizophrenia Treatment

While there is no cure for schizophrenia, research is finding more ground-breaking and safer treatments for those affected. Researchers are studying genetics, conducting behavioral research, and utilizing imaging to examine the brain's structure and function to determine the causes of the disease. All of these approaches possess the potential for providing more successful remedies in the future.

If you or someone you care about is experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, it is important to seek help from a medical professional. They can prescribe medication to reduce symptoms and help find treatment options, such as therapy, recovery services, mental health services, etc.

Schizophrenia Causes

Many researchers agree that schizophrenia may come from a combination of the following sources:

  • Brain Chemistry: Imbalances in certain neurotransmitters have been linked to schizophrenia. Neurotransmitters are important chemicals that help in communication between the brain, nerves, and organs. Two of these, dopamine and glutamate, are known to play a role in the disorder's thought patterns and behaviors.
  • Brain Structure: Imaging studies have revealed that the brains of people with schizophrenia show different structural patterns compared to those without the mental disorder. Those differences are most common in the frontal lobe, an area that is involved in a range of processes, including decision-making and the processing of emotion.
  • Genetics: Genes have been found to be an important factor in developing schizophrenia. While the exact causes and gene(s) are unknown, people with relatives with schizophrenia tend to have a higher risk of developing it.
  • Environmental: Risk factors for developing schizophrenia may start even before birth. Complications in pregnancy, maternal exposure to drugs or toxins, and fetal malnutrition can influence the chance of developing schizophrenia. Other environmental factors such as viruses, industrial chemicals, chaotic environments, or traumatic life events may further increase the risk of developing schizophrenia.

The Link Between Substance Abuse & Schizophrenia

The abuse of legal and illegal substances is a frequent issue among people with schizophrenia. Researchers have discovered that over half of all people with schizophrenia have abused at least one substance before the onset of their mental illness.

Commonly abused drugs may include:

  • Alcohol: As alcohol is easily available, people with schizophrenia can become dependent on it just as intensely as illegal drugs. Usually, alcohol abuse will occur before schizophrenia begins to appear.
  • Nicotine: People who smoke are more likely to have hallucinations and delusions, and require higher dosages of medication for treatment.
  • Cocaine: People with schizophrenia who use cocaine are at a higher risk of suicide, low-treatment compliance, and hospitalization.
  • Marijuana: Using cannabis may potentially worsen or accelerate the development of psychotic symptoms in certain people with schizophrenia.

As noted, drug use has the potential to intensify already present symptoms of schizophrenia. It can also increase the frequency of psychotic episodes that can lead to extreme outcomes like hospitalization, suicide attempts, as well as legal trouble and incarceration.

Drug Abuse & Schizophrenia Symptom Masking

Substance abuse may mask the symptoms of schizophrenia or vice versa. Therefore, it can be difficult to identify an individual's mental condition in the presence of substance use disorders.

Symptoms shared by both schizophrenia and substance abuse can include:

  • Unpredictable mood and behaviors
  • Withdrawal from social situations
  • Delusional beliefs
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorganized thoughts
  • Rapid speech
  • Inappropriate or odd emotions
  • Lack of concentration
  • Poor judgment

Seeking Help for Drug Abuse & Schizophrenia

Drug abuse and schizophrenia have a complicated relationship. While drug abuse does not directly cause schizophrenia, it may trigger an increase in schizophrenic symptoms among those already struggling with the mental illness. This can be especially damaging because many people with schizophrenia have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, leading to further problems. This cycle can worsen all existing symptoms and make it more difficult for individuals to receive treatment and find relief from their disorder.

As such, it is imperative that if you or a loved one is experiencing schizophrenic symptoms and/or drug abuse to seek help.

At The Carter Treatment Center, our team is committed to helping our patients with co-occurring disorders. We understand the underlying psychological factors that may contribute to a person’s use of drugs or alcohol, and we strive to build customized treatment plans for our clients.

Long-term recovery is important to us. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us today to learn more about our services.

Call (678) 737-4430 or contact us online today.