Schizophrenia and Substance Abuse

Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe mental health condition that affects approximately 1% of the U.S. adult population. People with schizophrenia will exhibit disordered thinking and speech patterns. They may also exhibit memory issues and problems with concentration. Delusions and hallucinations are also present in cases of schizophrenia and vary in intensity and duration. Many people with schizophrenia will also struggle with motivation and social isolation and withdrawal. The condition requires lifelong treatment and care, and there is no cure for the disorder. Unfortunately, the symptoms of schizophrenia can often mimic symptoms present in drug abuse and addiction

What are the statistics on schizophrenia?

The condition is a complex mental health disorder, and there are many misconceptions about the disease. People with schizophrenia do not have a split or multiple personalities, and they are rarely violent or dangerous. Those afflicted with the disorder do not make up large populations of institutionalized patients or the homeless. The majority of individuals with schizophrenia live at home either with family or by themselves. In more severe cases, they may reside in a group home. 

Schizophrenia affects men and women equally, but men will typically experience an earlier onset of the disorder than women. The average age of onset for schizophrenia is 18 for men and 25 for women. Men tend to exhibit symptoms of the disease between the ages of 16 and 25, while women often experience symptoms after age 30. Around the world, rates of schizophrenia are similar, and unfortunately, people with schizophrenia tend to die younger than the general population because they experience high rates of co-occurring health issues, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. 

Symptoms of the disorder are mixed and varied. Usually, early-onset symptoms include troubled relationships, lack of motivation, and problems with memory and concentration. When the disease is at its most severe, a patient will experience problems distinguishing between real and unreal situations and experiences. They may believe things that are not real, despite any evidence to the contrary. People with schizophrenia may also experience auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and visual hallucinations.  The severity and duration of these symptoms will vary for each patient, but the incidents of severe psychotic symptoms usually decrease as patients get older. However, the symptoms of schizophrenia are significantly increased when patients are under stress, don’t use medication, or they abuse drugs or alcohol. 

What is the correlation between schizophrenia and substance abuse?

People who abuse drugs and alcohol will often display similar symptoms seen in schizophrenia, and vice versa. Also, people who are suffering from schizophrenia symptoms may use drugs or alcohol for quick relief from their distress. But drugs and alcohol will make symptoms worse. It is a common misconception that drug or alcohol abuse causes schizophrenia, and researchers do not believe this is true. What is true is that people with this disorder abuse substances at higher rates than the general population. About 10% of the U.S. adult population has a substance use disorder. Researchers estimate that among those with schizophrenia, up to 50% have a history of substance abuse. 

Abusing drugs or alcohol when a person has schizophrenia can make medications for the mental health disorder less effective. Marijuana and stimulant drugs like cocaine and meth are also known to make schizophrenia symptoms worse. MArijuana and schizophrenia have one thing in common – psychosis. 

Psychosis is not a condition but a symptom. When someone abuses marijuana, they can experience psychosis until the high wears off. In schizophrenia, psychosis is a positive symptom of the condition. Drug abuse also makes someone less likely to fulfill their responsibilities. Patients with co-occurring substance use and schizophrenia are less likely to follow their treatment plans for both disorders. 

Among people with diagnosable schizophrenia, nicotine addiction is a common occurrence. People with the condition are three times more likely to smoke or use other tobacco products than the general population, which works out the 75% versus 25%. Researchers are not entirely sure why people with this condition are more likely to use tobacco, but there is a suspected biological basis for the addiction. But in addition to the usual health risks associated with tobacco use, nicotine can also make antipsychotic medications less effective. 

Who is most likely to have schizophrenia and co-occurring substance abuse issues?

Researchers are not entirely sure why people with schizophrenia are at such high risk of abusing drugs than the general population. In most cases, it is believed that drugs and alcohol are used as a way to lessen the severity of schizophrenia symptoms. Experiencing an earlier onset of symptoms and greater severity of symptoms also increases the chances of someone with this disorder abusing drugs or alcohol.

What help is available for people with these co-occurring conditions?

Schizophrenia is a severe disorder, but there is help for both schizophrenia and substance abuse. Treatment for these co-occurring conditions is most effective when the focus is on addressing the symptoms of schizophrenia. Treating symptoms and lessening their severity can help prevent relapses in this vulnerable population. Patients who have been treated for the more debilitating, positive symptoms of the disorder like psychosis and hallucinations, will often have symptoms of residual schizophrenia. In residual schizophrenia, patients may display negative signs of the disorder, such as lack of motivation and problems with concentration. Talk therapy and support are critical for helping these patients. 

An emphasis on integrated treatment methods that combine both medications and psychotherapy are useful and effective for helping patients with these disorders. Both drug addiction and schizophrenia are chronic, lifelong conditions. But they can be treated effectively with ongoing maintenance, care, and support and understanding from clinicians and loved ones. 

If you or someone you care about is struggling with the symptoms of schizophrenia and drug addiction, there is hope. The clinicians and addiction specialists at Windward Way can treat patients with co-occurring substance abuse and mental health conditions. Please contact Windward Way today to see what treatment options are available for you or a loved one.