If you’re a drug user, you might wonder if it’s contributing to the severity of your schizophrenia symptoms. Oftentimes, individuals with severe mental health conditions will use drugs to self-medicate, but is it possible it created their symptoms altogether? Schizophrenia is a debilitating condition that requires lifelong management. When left untreated, it results in severe issues that affect each area of your life. Complications include suicide attempts, suicide, homelessness, and a vast array of other problems. Without adequate treatment, your mental health can worsen, and you can also develop other mental conditions, including anxiety disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects an estimated 20 million people globally. Schizophrenia is considered a significant disability and affects educational and occupational performance. Those with the condition are two to three times more likely to die early than the general population, stemming from preventable physical diseases like cardiovascular disease and infections ignored by the person due to their illness. The stigma attached to the condition remains common. Despite its treatability, many turn to drugs instead, which is a slippery slope. 

Even worse, nearly seven out of ten people with the condition are not receiving the appropriate care, and 90 percent of those with untreated schizophrenia live in low-and-middle-income countries. This has become a glaring issue because many of these regions lack the necessary access to mental health care services. Those with the condition are less likely to seek care than the general population even when they have access to care.

Individuals who have schizophrenia interpret reality abnormally. It can result in a combination of delusions, hallucinations, and extreme disorder thinking or behavior that impairs typical functioning. In many cases, it’s disabling. Even more, illicit drug use is extremely common. According to BMC Psychiatry, nearly 11.9 percent of those with the condition had comorbid drug abuse or dependence. About 25 percent of patients had cannabis use disorder, leading us to wonder – can drugs cause schizophrenia?

Causes and Symptoms of Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia leads to various problems with thinking, emotions, and behavior. The signs and symptoms will vary from one person to the next, especially if one person is an active drug user. However, the most common symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, disorganized speech, and an impaired ability to function.

  • Hallucinations: Hallucinations occur when a person sees or hears something that doesn’t exist. However, the individual with schizophrenia will have the full force and impact of a typical experience. Hallucinations can take place in any one of the senses, but hearing voices is the most widespread in a person living with schizophrenia. 
  • Delusions: Delusions are false beliefs with no basis in reality. For example, if you believe you’re being harassed or harmed, specific gestures or comments are directed at you, you’re famous, or another person is in love with you, but none of that is true, you’re experiencing delusions. 
  • Disorganized Thinking (Speech): Disorganized thinking causes disorganized speech. Effective communication has the ability to be impaired, and when a person responds, their answers can be partial to totally unrelated to the question. In some cases, speech can include putting together meaningless words, sometimes referred to as word salad.
  • Negative Symptoms: What this refers to is the inability to function normally. In some cases, the individual will neglect personal hygiene or lack emotion, where they won’t make eye contact, change their facial expression, or speak in monotone. The individual may also lose interest in activities that once brought them joy, withdrawal socially, or lack the ability to feel pleasure. 
  • Abnormal Motor Behavior: This can present itself in various ways, including unpredictable agitation or childlike silliness. The individual’s behavior isn’t focused on a specific goal, meaning it’s hard to complete tasks. Some of these behaviors include a complete lack of response, resistance to instructions, inappropriate posture, or useless and excessive movement.

The symptoms will vary in type and severity. There will be periods of worsening symptoms, followed by remission. However, some symptoms can always be present. It may lead you to wonder, what are some causes of schizophrenia?

Causes of Schizophrenia

The causes of schizophrenia still aren’t known, despite the vast amount of research into the topic. However, researchers believe it’s a combination of brain chemistry, genetics, and environmental factors that contribute to the development of the condition. Those with naturally occurring brain chemicals, including neurotransmitters called glutamate and dopamine, can contribute to the development. Specific neuroimaging studies have shown the difference between brain structure and the central nervous system in someone with schizophrenia compared to the average brain. Although researchers aren’t sure about the significance of the changes, it does indicate schizophrenia is a brain disease.

While the specific cause is unknown, there are some risk factors that increase your odds of developing or triggering the condition. These include the following:

  • A family history of schizophrenia.
  • Pregnancy or birth complications, such as exposure to viruses or toxins, or malnutrition that impacts brain development. 
  • Mind-altering (psychotropic or psychoactive) drugs during your teen years or young adulthood. 

Can Drugs Cause or Trigger Schizophrenia?

Drugs do not directly lead to or cause schizophrenia. However, studies have found that drug abuse increases the odds of developing schizophrenia or other related illnesses. Specific drugs like cocaine, cannabis, LSD, or amphetamines can trigger symptoms of schizophrenia in those more susceptible to the condition. Using stimulant drugs like cocaine or amphetamines can cause psychosis, leading to relapse in those recovering from an earlier psychotic episode. Research has also found that teenagers and young adults who use cannabis increase the chances of developing schizophrenia later in adulthood. 

Drug-Induced Psychosis vs. Drug-Induced Schizophrenia

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) states that substance-induced psychosis stems from prominent delusions or hallucinations. To clarify, delusions are false beliefs about the world, while hallucinations are false perceptions of what you see, hear, or feel. 

Psychotic episodes that occur as a result of drug use, intoxication, or withdrawal, and its disturbance, cannot be better explained by something that’s not substance-induced. If the psychotic symptoms precede the drug use, psychotic episodes wouldn’t be viewed as drug-induced psychosis. Even more, if these delusions or hallucinations persist for a significant period of time after someone ceases use of drugs and they’re no longer in acute withdrawal, it’s likely the person is not experiencing a substance-induced psychotic episode. 

On the other hand, drug-induced schizophrenia is viewed as a misnomer. Research hasn’t found that drug use causes schizophrenia in adults. However, drug-induced schizophrenia refers to schizophrenic episodes triggered by substance misuse. It’s important to note that drug-induced schizophrenia will only occur when someone has the condition, but it can go undiagnosed until the drug-induced episode appears.

Drug Use and Schizophrenia

As was mentioned above, drug use, particularly abuse or misuse, is believed to trigger schizophrenia symptoms in those already susceptible to the illness. For example, methamphetamine abuse causes psychotic symptoms. Drug-induced paranoia is prevalent in these situations but can only be considered drug-induced schizophrenia if there’s an underlying case of schizophrenia. Those receiving treatment for and recovering from schizophrenia that uses drugs can cause a relapse in their symptoms. 

This can occur in a person regardless of their knowledge about their illness. For that reason, those with drug-induced schizophrenia can exacerbate their symptoms and develop the condition as a result of their drug use. However, the reality of the situation is that they already had schizophrenia and could have been showing symptoms, albeit less severe, prior to their drug use. It may not have been apparent before the drug-induced schizophrenic episode. depressive psychosis

The American Journal of Psychiatry distinguishes between drug-induced psychosis and schizophrenia in other ways by citing the primary difference being the length of the psychotic episode. Studies have also found that individuals with substance-induced psychosis who progress to schizophrenia are genetically vulnerable to developing the condition. 

Those who suffer from drug-induced psychosis who don’t progress to schizophrenia don’t show the same type of genetic vulnerability to the condition. Therefore, drug use does not cause mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Rather it triggers schizophrenic episodes. 

The unfortunate reality we’ve learned about schizophrenia is how it’s still misunderstood and riddled with stigma. Those struggling with mental illness deserve to receive the treatment they need. While drug abuse can certainly cause a schizophrenic episode, research does not show that it’s the cause. Whether it’s drug-induced or not, those who struggle with the condition will abuse drugs, causing symptoms to return or worsen. It’s vital to seek help and treat both drug addiction and schizophrenia before it’s too late. 

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