Schizophrenia and drug abuse are closely and complexly intertwined. The conditions often co-occur. Individuals who have schizophrenia also struggle with substance abuse between 10 and 70 percent of the time.
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that can cause a person to lose touch with reality and bring on hallucinations, delusions, movement issues, and thought disorders. Many drugs have psychoactive properties that can cause some of the same symptoms.
Schizophrenia can be a risk factor for drug use and increase the odds of addiction. Likewise, drug use can exacerbate schizophrenia symptoms and potentially even lead to early onset of the disorder in people at risk for it.
Both disorders complicate each other. Treatment methods should be integrated to manage both simultaneously.
Higher Risk for Drug Abuse
Schizophrenia symptoms typically develop between the ages of 16 and 30, the National Institute of Mental Illness (NIMH) explains. Similarly, one of the most vulnerable times for drug and alcohol abuse is between the ages of 18 and 25.
Drug use and schizophrenia are closely linked. They share many risk factors:
- They have common genetic vulnerabilities since both disorders are heritable.
- Similar regions of the brain and brain chemistry are impacted
- They have environmental and psychosocial aspects, such as heightened levels of stress.
- Drugs and alcohol may be used to cope with schizophrenia symptoms, which can, in turn, raise the odds for addiction
- Drug use at a young age may complicate schizophrenia and potentially speed up its onset.
Effects on the Brain
Similar parts of the brain may be impacted by both schizophrenia and addiction, so the two disorders may have shared genetic and biological vulnerabilities. Both schizophrenia and addiction are believed to involve parts of the brain related to emotional regulation and impulse control as well as reward processing.
Low levels of the “happy” neurotransmitter dopamine may be involved in some of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as “flat” effect, low moods, and difficulties feeling pleasure. High anxiety and continued stress from environmental factors, such as chaos at home, can also impact brain chemistry.
Drugs and alcohol can interfere with dopamine levels in the brain, raising them and creating a false sense of pleasure and a high. Drugs can also decrease anxiety and temporarily seem to act as stress relievers.
Repeated drug use can damage the dopaminergic pathways and system in the brain, however — the same areas that can be impacted by schizophrenia. In this way, drug and alcohol use may seem to improve schizophrenia symptoms temporarily, but in reality, it only makes them worse.
How Drugs Impact Schizophrenia
Using drugs and alcohol can increase the risk for schizophrenia, Medical News Today publishes, with some of the highest correlation coming from cannabis and alcohol use.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that marijuana use, especially during teen and adolescent years, can increase the risk for developing schizophrenia in people who already have a genetic predisposition for the disorder. While drug use is not likely to cause schizophrenia out of the blue, substance use at a young age could trigger the illness sooner and cause psychotic symptoms to begin if there is already a genetic vulnerability for the disorder.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains that drug use, especially marijuana use, during the formative years raises the risk for psychotic incidents. The more drugs are used and the earlier they are used, the higher the odds for the onset of schizophrenia.
Methamphetamine, hallucinogens, and dissociative drugs can cause psychotic symptoms that are similar to schizophrenic symptoms. Since drug use is common in the same age group when schizophrenic symptoms first appear, it can be difficult to diagnose the illness when there is concurrent drug use. Drugs and alcohol can also amplify the side effects of schizophrenia and make them more extreme while complicating treatment methods.
Help For Co-Occurring Disorders
Both schizophrenia and addiction are complex disorders that are best managed through comprehensive treatment programs. These programs can provide supportive care as well as behavioral therapy and the use of medications.
Schizophrenia treatment often involves antipsychotic medications and behavioral therapies to teach coping and emotional regulation skills. Treatment for addiction may also use medications to manage withdrawal symptoms and control cravings as well as therapy and skills training to minimize relapse and handle stress and potential triggers.
When schizophrenia and addiction co-occur, the treatment should be specialized. It should manage both disorders simultaneously. The disorders are often intertwined in such a way that they are difficult to distinguish from each other.
Finding Rehabs That Treat Bipolar Disorder
A specialized drug rehab center can provide the highest level of care as well as knowledgeable and experienced staff members who can work together as a team to provide quality care. Traditional drug rehab may not take into account the unique needs of someone battling a severe mental illness, so a specialized program is often ideal.
Medications will need to be managed and closely monitored. Therapies and support groups should focus on the specific issues related to managing co-occurring disorders. Look for a program that has these capabilities.
These resources can help you find rehabs that treat both bipolar disorder and substance abuse:
- The Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator can help you find local treatment options that cater to co-occurring disorders.
- NAMI hosts a helpline and provides information on local chapters that offer support for mental illnesses.
- Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDAA) is a nonprofit organization that offers support and resources for individuals and families managing schizophrenia.
- Mental Health America (MHA) provides resources and information on local support chapters throughout the United States.
The individual with both schizophrenia and addiction will benefit from ongoing treatment. A comprehensive drug rehab program can offer a high level of care and many resources for managing co-occurring disorders.