Drug abuse can have severe adverse effects on your brain and body. Psychoactive substances are used to alter chemicals in your body to achieve the desired result, whether that is to treat an illness or for recreation.
Substance use disorders are progressive, and they can get worse over time. They can start to take over different aspects of your life, including your psychological and physiological health. But can drugs leave a lasting psychological impact on you? Does the fried egg metaphor from the old “this is your brain on drugs” commercial really hold water?
There are reports of people who use certain types of drugs developing psychotic symptoms and disorders like schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorders. But do drugs really affect the brain in that way, or could the mental disorders cause the initial drug use?
Learn more about drug abuse and its relationship to schizoaffective disorders.
Schizoaffective disorder is a mental health disorder where a person experiences both schizophrenia symptoms and mood disorder symptoms at the same time. Schizophrenic symptoms can include audio and visual hallucinations, which means that you see or hear things that other people doesn’t. In some cases, other senses like touch may be affected, but that’s rare. You may also have delusions, which are firmly held beliefs that aren’t based in reality. For instance, a common delusion is that some governmental power, like the FBI, is watching or controlling you.
Schizophrenia symptoms can also manifest in a lack of emotional range, slow and fragmented speech, word salad, and trouble initiating goal-oriented behavior. A schizoaffective disorder also comes with mood disorder symptoms, which can include periods of mania where you feel abnormally energized and overexcited, followed by major depression. Sometimes a schizoaffective only comes with depression symptoms alongside psychosis with no manic episodes.
Schizoaffective disorders are complex, and they can be difficult to cope with without help. Severe cases can be debilitating, causing you to be unable to communicate and live an independent life. However, schizoaffective disorders often respond well to treatment and medication.
It’s difficult to determine which comes first, psychological disorders, or substance use problems. The two often go hand in hand, and they feed off each other. Mental health issues are often at the root of addiction and vice versa.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 8 million people had a substance use disorder and another mental illness and at the same time in 2014. Still, it’s difficult to say if certain drugs definitively cause particular mental health problems.
Mental disorders often lead to drug abuse as a form of self-medication. For instance, someone with depression may drink alcohol to distract them from their negative feelings. Self-medication often compounds the problem and leads to a worsening of both issues.
However, there are cases where there doesn’t seem to be a history of mental health problems until someone starts to abuse a drug. Still, it could be that substance use problems trigger latent psychological issues. For instance, issues that cause psychosis, such as schizoaffective disorders, can be hard to notice in the early stages. Taking a mind-altering drug, especially a psychedelic, can potentially worsen disorders that were previously undiagnosed.
Several psychoactive substances are known to cause psychosis in some users. However, drugs that cause schizophrenia-like symptoms can worsen existing psychological problems. Some of the most common drugs associated with psychosis are listed below.
Marijuana is a unique drug in that it can cause stimulating effects in some people and depressive effects in others. For the most part, marijuana isn’t associated with psychosis, but more and more studies are finding that it can cause psychosis in some people. A 2007 review said it could also “worsen the prognosis of patients with psychotic disorders.”
Drugs like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), mushrooms, and DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) can cause powerful hallucinations and delusions that are usually temporary. They can cause symptoms and side effects that are very similar to psychotic symptoms. However, sometimes, these symptoms can last for a long time. A review in 2011 argued that schizophrenia was less like a disease and more like a syndrome caused by a variety of factors. They say, “It appears that multiple genetic and environmental factors operate together to push individuals over a threshold into expressing the characteristic clinical picture.” One of those factors is drug use. LSD is even being used to investigate how schizophrenia and psychosis might affect the brain.
Stimulants like amphetamines, meth, and cocaine are known to cause a phenomenon called stimulant-induced psychosis. The overuse of stimulants can cause psychotic symptoms that are similar to the ones seen in schizoaffective disorders. Stimulants can also cause symptoms similar to mania, and then depression, as they wear off.
One case study published in 2019 in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science said, “In addition to the risk of inducing acute psychosis, regular use of stimulants, especially amphetamines and methamphetamines, has been found to be a major risk factor leading to the onset of chronic psychosis or schizophrenia.”
Depressants like alcohol and benzodiazepines don’t know necessarily cause psychotic symptoms when you use them. They can cause depression, and regular use can worsen depressive disorders. However, depressants can cause hallucinations and delirium during withdrawal.
Quitting depressants abruptly, or “cold turkey,” after developing a chemical dependence, can cause dangerous, life-threatening symptoms. Depressant withdrawal can cause a phenomenon called delirium tremens, which is characterized by sudden confusion, hallucinations, delusions, panic, and heart palpitations.
American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
Gouzoulis-Mayfrank, E., Habermeyer, E., Hermle, L., Steinmeyer, A. M., Kunert, H. J., & Sass, H. (2000, July 31). Hallucinogenic drug-induced states resemble acute endogenous psychoses: results of an empirical study. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924933899806865
Henning, A., Kurtom, M., & Espiridion, E. D. (2019, February 23). A Case Study of Acute Stimulant-induced Psychosis. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6483113/
National Institute of Mental Health. (2016, May). Substance Use and Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health/index.shtml
Rey, J. M. (2018, December 11). Does marijuana contribute to psychotic illness? Retrieved from https://www.mdedge.com/psychiatry/article/62537/does-marijuana-contribute-psychotic-illness