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.

What Is A Schizoaffective Disorder?

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.

Does Drug Abuse Cause Or Trigger Psychotic Symptoms?

catatonic schizophrenia

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.

Drugs That Are Linked To Psychosis

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

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.”

Psychedelics

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

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

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.

Schizophrenia and Drug Abuse

As mentioned in-depth above, schizoaffective disorder is a severe chronic mental health condition involving the symptoms of a mood disorder, such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. A staggeringly small amount of the population will ever get diagnosed with the condition, which is often misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. The disorders share similar features, including delusions, hallucinations, and depression.

The onset of mental illness is extremely stressful. If you’re diagnosed with a condition like schizophrenia, you have a long, challenging road ahead. If you don’t have access to mental health treatment or education about the disorder, you’re at an increased risk of using drugs or alcohol to manage your symptoms. Unfortunately, schizophrenia and drug abuse can lead to an earlier onset of psychotic symptoms, including increased symptom severity, and induce a psychotic relapse.

Drug-induced schizophrenia can result from legal drugs like nicotine and alcohol, and marijuana (which is legal in some states). It can also result from cocaine use. Studies on the subject vary, but researchers have found that 50 percent of people with schizophrenia have abused at least one substance before the onset of their mental illness. The same study found those with schizophrenia are 4.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD) than the general population, which is substantial. 

Schizophrenia and substance abuse are widespread in that community. Those with the condition who abuse drugs or alcohol will experience more intensive psychosis, more significant cognitive impairment, and higher odds of requiring emergency services. Even worse, the likelihood of them going to jail or experiencing legal troubles is much higher than the general population, which can be dangerous if they don’t get the proper care they need.

Schizophrenia is an extremely challenging condition to live with. The antipsychotic medication psychiatrists prescribe is often filled with extreme side effects, including dry mouth, drowsiness, dizziness, blurry vision, and rapid heartbeat, to name a few. Those who use the medication also report uncontrollable movements of their jaw, tongue, lips, uncomfortable restlessness, sedation, weight gain, sexual problems, and other issues that make them forgo taking these drugs. Even worse, they report feeling disconnected from the world and numb. For that reason, it’s difficult to get someone with schizophrenia to follow a schedule of taking their medicine.

When you feel this hopeless, it’s not shocking that so many people turn to drugs or alcohol to fill that void. You can’t live with the hallucinations and delusions, but you also can’t live with feeling numb and groggy all the time. So, where does that leave you? Drugs and alcohol seem like the only outlet, but they can lead to something more severe than the condition itself – drug-induced psychosis.

Drug-induced psychosis, sometimes referred to as “stimulant psychosis,” occurs when you endure episodes of psychosis like hallucinations and delusions due to substance abuse. Psychotic episodes typically show up during periods of drug use, intoxication, or withdrawal. Stimulant-related disorders are the most common drugs to cause this. However, it can be caused by any drug. Drug-induced schizophrenia refers to schizophrenic episodes which are triggered by substance abuse. It can happen in someone with schizophrenia. However, it might be undiagnosed until the episode occurs.

If you’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, a substance use disorder, or a co-occurring mental health condition, treatment is your only option. Unfortunately, treating mental health disorders like schizophrenia often involves medication that produces undesirable side effects. However, if you work with a psychologist, you can find a combination of medicine that works with few side effects. It requires time and patience to overcome, but living with untreated mental illness is even worse. 

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