Addiction comes at a high cost to both individuals and families all over the world, especially in recent years with the opioid crisis and an increase in fentanyl-related deaths. However, drug use can have another frightening consequence: the emergence of schizophrenia.
Increasing evidence points to a link between schizophrenia and drug use. Here’s how the two connect and what you can do if you or a loved one is struggling.
What is Schizophrenia?
The Mayo Clinic defines schizophrenia as “a serious mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally.” The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 24 million people worldwide are living with the condition, which equates to about 1 in every 300 people.
Schizophrenia is marked by episodes of psychosis, along with some persistent symptoms. Many of these symptoms can be confusing and frightening to both the person experiencing them and their loved ones, especially during psychosis. Schizophrenia falls under a group of psychotic disorders that also includes bipolar disorder.
Hallucinations are one of the primary symptoms and can be visual, auditory or even tactile. Delusions are sometimes confused with hallucinations, but they’re not the same.
While hallucinations essentially create false sensory input, causing the affected person to sense something that isn’t really there, delusions cause the person to believe things that aren’t true. Someone experiencing delusions may believe, for example, that they can speak to God through radio waves or that they’re being tracked and watched by a government entity.
Other symptoms include illogical or disorganized thoughts, slow or repetitive movements that may appear to have no purpose and difficulty holding conversations and maintaining relationships.
What Causes Schizophrenia?
The exact cause or causes of schizophrenia aren’t known, but researchers have several theories. It’s strongly suspected that genetics and family history play a significant role in an individual’s likelihood of developing this illness. The use of psychedelic drugs or even cannabis in teenagers has also been identified as a potential risk factor for developing schizophrenia later in life.
While it’s unlikely a stressful event would be the sole cause of schizophrenia, there are theories that extremely stressful events can trigger a person’s first psychotic episode.
It’s important to note that while psychosis is a common symptom of schizophrenia, it can happen with other mental disorders as well. An occurrence of psychosis doesn’t necessarily indicate schizophrenia, but it may be the first indication that the affected individual is dealing with a serious mental illness.
How Are Schizophrenia and Drug Use Related?
The debate over whether drug use is a potential cause of mental illness has been hotly contested in psychiatry for decades. A 2006 study by the University of Vienna explored the relationship between schizophrenia and drug use.
The study found that while drug use doesn’t necessarily cause new occurrences of schizophrenia, a comorbidity of schizophrenia and substance use can worsen symptoms. Heavy cannabis use in teenagers and young adults may lead to an increased chance of psychotic symptoms later in life.
People who have schizophrenia and used cocaine saw higher hospitalization rates than those who didn’t use cocaine. In addition, researchers found that the use of cocaine could trigger a psychotic episode, especially in those who were recovering from previous episodes. In short, while there isn’t currently enough evidence to declare that one causes the other, schizophrenia and addiction appear to be closely related.
Why Are People With Schizophrenia More Likely to Struggle With Drug Use?
Many factors play into an individual’s likelihood of developing issues with drug use, including genetics, traumatic life events and exposure to substance use as a child. Studies have long indicated that addiction is a comorbid condition with schizophrenia, but the scientific community has historically disagreed on the reason behind the relationship.
The most popular hypothesis is that people with schizophrenia seek temporary symptom relief through drugs. The symptoms of any psychotic disorder can be extremely distressing and frightening, leading people to self-medicate with anything that provides even a little bit of relief. Despite the other negative effects like withdrawal that may occur as a result of drug use, some people see it as a worthwhile alternative to the terror of their symptoms. A 2001 study by Harris and Edlund found that the use of drugs other than marijuana increased with unmet need for mental health care.
Comorbidities of Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is associated with multiple comorbidities, or conditions that occur simultaneously. Some people may have multiple conditions along with their schizophrenia, while others may have few or none.
Depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorders and addiction have all been linked to schizophrenia, with about a third of schizophrenic people experiencing at least one psychiatric comorbidity. Physical comorbidities have also been linked to schizophrenia, including hypertension and cardiovascular illnesses.
Psychiatric illnesses can and often do influence each other. Using the example of schizophrenia and depression, it’s easy to see how the two intersect and worsen one another. The hallucinations and delusions associated with schizophrenia, along with the social difficulties that come with the condition, can contribute to feelings of isolation. People living with schizophrenia may feel misunderstood or that they don’t fit into traditional society, which can lead to feelings of depression.
Depression often causes people to stop taking care of themselves, which may include neglecting to take necessary medications or turning to drugs to ease their symptoms — in turn worsening the symptoms of schizophrenia. Unaddressed comorbid conditions can result in mental health spirals, so it’s vital to seek treatment when dealing with them.
Help Is Available
If you or a loved one is living with schizophrenia or struggling with drug use, there’s hope for recovery and wellness. At FHE, our compassionate and experienced team is available 24/7 to take your call and get you connected with the help you need. Reaching out for mental health treatment can be scary, but you deserve help. Contact us today by calling (844)-299-0618 and get on the road to recovery.