More than 21 million people worldwide have schizophrenia, a treatable but challenging mental health disorder. People with schizophrenia have a hard time distinguishing the imaginary from reality. Instead of being able to think and feel clearly, their lives are often filled with hallucinations, delusions, and disorderly thoughts, making them feel as if they’ve lost touch with reality. Schizophrenia can also make social interactions difficult which can make maintaining relationships at work or school extremely challenging. The psychological, emotional, and social challenges associated with schizophrenia make people with schizophrenia 4 times more likely than the general population to become addicted to drugs. In fact, experts estimate that approximately half of the people with schizophrenia also suffer from co-occurring substance abuse disorder. Though the relationship between schizophrenia and addiction is complex, distress from the disorder, along with temporary relief from symptoms and biological vulnerability, may help explain the correlation between the two disorders.
What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a mental illness that affects how an individual thinks, feels, and behaves. Essentially, people with schizophrenia experience the world differently. The neurological disorder causes a gap between their own experience and what’s actually happening in the surrounding world. Often, people with schizophrenia struggle with delusional beliefs, hallucinations, and disorganized thoughts, causing them to think, feel, and behave in ways that can be hard to understand. As with any illness, symptoms of schizophrenia can range in severity, duration, and frequency. But when a schizophrenic episode occurs, people with the disorder are unable to distinguish between what’s real and unreal. Other symptoms of schizophrenia include:
- Hearing voices and seeing things that are not there
- Paranoia and feeling like others are “out to get you”
- Believing that the television, radio, or internet broadcasts special messages that require a response
- Trouble thinking logically
- Feeling like a disaster is about to happen
- Childlike motor behavior such as excessive movement and unusual postures
- Lack of impulse control
- Belief in an incredible fortune or mystic power
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty planning, beginning and maintaining activities
- Diminished feelings of pleasure in everyday life
- Unpredictable agitation and resistance to instruction
- Trouble keeping track of thoughts
- Difficulty showing emotions, including a lack of eye contact and few, if any, facial expressions
- Social withdrawal
Generally, symptoms of schizophrenia first appear in early adulthood. Men often experience initial symptoms in their late teens or early 20s, while women tend to show the first signs of schizophrenia in their early 20s or 30s. Symptoms must remain for at least 6 months for doctors to officially diagnose schizophrenia.
How Schizophrenia and Addiction are Connected
Schizophrenia and addiction often co-occur. Although researchers continue to study the relationship between schizophrenia and addiction, here are some of the most common theories about the connection between the two disorders.
Schizophrenia May Increase the Likelihood of Substance Abuse
Research shows that people with schizophrenia may be more vulnerable to substance use and addiction. Schizophrenia can negatively impact an individual’s cognitive and behavioral functioning. In other words, people with schizophrenia have difficulty thinking logically and managing their impulses. This means that they may have a hard time logically understanding the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Additionally, their inability to regulate their impulses can cause them to have lower levels of resistance to addictive substances like drugs and alcohol, making them more susceptible to addiction.
Socioeconomic Difficulties Can Make Schizophrenics More Likely To Abuse Substances
Being unable to distinguish between what’s real and not real can cause a lot of interpersonal distress. In fact, most schizophrenics have difficulty managing symptoms at school and work. Unfortunately, this can cause them to have strained peer relationships and trouble maintaining employment, making them more vulnerable to poverty and a lower quality of life. Research has proven that unemployment, low levels of education, and homelessness can make individuals more likely to abuse substances.
Schizophrenics May Use Addictive Substances to Self-Medicate
Schizophrenia is a very distressing mental disorder. In addition to delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia, schizophrenics deal with considerable emotional and social discomfort. As such, nearly 50 percent of people with schizophrenia use drugs or alcohol to ease their symptoms. In other words, 1 in 2 schizophrenics use, misuse, and abuse substances to simply feel “normal.” Unfortunately, those substances can increase the paranoia, psychosis, and delusions that schizophrenics experience.
Drugs Can Cause Psychosis & Paranoia Associated with Schizophrenia
Researchers aren’t 100 percent certain if substance abuse causes schizophrenia, but drugs like marijuana can trigger schizophrenia-like symptoms. Smoking marijuana, for example, can cause short-term psychosis. In fact, 53 percent of people experiencing their first episode of psychosis use marijuana beforehand. Researchers have also discovered that people with schizophrenia are two times more likely to smoke marijuana than someone without the disorder. Other data suggests that teens under the age of 15 who regularly use marijuana are four times more likely to develop schizophrenia by their late 20s.
Schizophrenia May Affect the Brain’s Reward Center & Provoke Substance Use
Researchers are still exploring this theory, but schizophrenia seems to cause problems in the brain’s reward center, causing people with the disorder to lose interest in everyday activities. This part of the brain deals with dopamine, a neurotransmitter or brain chemical that regulates pleasure. Dopamine also helps determine our areas of focus. Essentially, this hypothesis suggests that schizophrenics may use drugs and alcohol to help balance the dysfunction schizophrenia causes in the brain’s reward system.
Treating Addiction & Mental Health Disorders with Expert-Level Brain Science
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we know that substance use disorders and mental illnesses like schizophrenia originate in the brain. That’s why we take a different approach to recovery. Our treatment programs combine evidence-based therapy, nutrition, exercise, clinical support, and neuroscience to help restore the brain to its optimum state of health. We also offer a dual diagnosis program specifically designed to treat co-occurring disorders.
Grappling with addiction and living with schizophrenia can be frustrating and distressing. But we can help you manage both conditions in a healthy way. Let us help you get there. Contact us today at 928-583-7799 if you or a loved one have an addiction or a debilitating mental health condition.
Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies
Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.