Breaking the Links Between Schizophrenia and Substance Abuse

One of the great and horrible ironies of mental disorders is the way that they reinforce themselves through the sufferer, through their friends, and through society. They are like an alien virus, replicating itself by infecting everyone in the vicinity, so that they act in a way that keeps the sickness alive. Take this example: a person who suffers from social anxiety believes that no one would want to be her friend. Because she believes this, she doesn’t try to make friends, and not having any only solidifies her belief that she can’t.

The same is true for other mental health disorders, and with varying levels of consequences. With schizophrenia, many of the symptoms are misunderstood, and this leads to a feedback loop that often ends with alcohol abuse or other co-occurring substance problems. This combination of chemical suffering—both natural and not—makes treatment harder, further isolates the schizophrenic, helps lead to damaging stereotypes, and perpetuates the problem. Understanding the links between schizophrenia and substance abuse can help us understand the differences between them, and help to break the downward spiral of these co-occurring disorders.

The Symptoms of Schizophrenia

There are a lot of misperceptions and myths about schizophrenia, with the most prevalent one being about having multiple personalities. While it is true that victims may hear voices, they do not believe themselves to be those people. Some of the actual symptoms include:

  • Delusions. Sometimes these are thinking someone is in love with you, or thinking that you are famous, but oftentimes they are paranoid, thinking that you are being harassed or followed, or that people are out to get you.
  • Inability to think coherently. Not being able to form complete thoughts, getting lost in a train of thought (or switching tracks), and other mental disorganization issues are common with schizophrenia.
  • Hallucinations. Hearing sounds or seeing images that don’t exist. These can have the power of a full sensory experience, and are very real to the schizophrenic.
  • Strange movements. Disorganized motor skills are a real symptom, and it can range from not reacting to a stimulus, to random and haphazard motions, to a complete over-reaction.
  • Inability to function normally. Making appointments, normal hygienic procedures, and conforming to social norms are often difficult for people with schizophrenia.

What these symptoms have in common is that they are closely related to the symptoms of an addict or an alcoholic. If you have an addict in your life, you have probably noticed some of these behaviors. This can be very dangerous, and people with schizophrenia are often mistaken for addicts. The mistakes are compounded by a general misunderstanding about the disorder. Think of a hypothetical conversation where you tell someone you are afraid a mutual friend is schizophrenic, and the response is to ask if “he’s been acting like a bunch of different people.” You say no, so the conclusion is that your paranoid, disorganized, moody friend who hears things you don’t isn’t schizophrenic, but is instead on drugs.

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Co-Occurring Substance Abuse

Substance abuse may be a mask keeping a schizophrenic from seeking the treatment they need–but it can also be a crutch. Schizophrenia can be so damaging and difficult to deal with, many people who suffer from it turn toward substances in a futile but understandable attempt to help them cope, leading to abuse and addiction. While there may be moments of temporary relief, This co-occurring substance abuse compounds the symptoms, makes them worse, and further isolates the victim from the community.

The numbers involved are staggering. The National Institute of Health estimates that approximately 40-50% of all schizophrenics have substance abuse issues. This is in contrast with the approximately 8% of substance abusers in the United States as a whole. While there is no evidence that drugs or alcohol cause schizophrenia, it can be clearly established that, for a variety of reasons, schizophrenics are far more likely to abuse these dangerous substances, piling another difficulty onto their already difficult lives.

How Substance Abuse Can Lead To Dangerous Isolation

People who are addicts are too often ignored by friends and family, instead of getting the help they need (as comedian and addict Mitch Hedberg said, alcoholism is the only disease you can get yelled at for having). Being turned away due to substance abuse—or the suspicion thereof—is especially dangerous for schizophrenics, who have a disease that can’t be cured, but can be managed.

To make things even worse, it is substance abuse which often leads the schizophrenic toward violence. Many people believe that schizophrenia is a violent disease, but recent studies have shown the disorder itself doesn’t lead to violence, but rather the drugs or alcohol turned to for relief do. This leads people to think very ill of schizophrenics, and often turn them away out of fear instead of helping them get help. This can lead to more isolation, more abuse, and the continuation of a cycle of neglect, despondence, self-loathing, and above all, misunderstanding.

As we said, schizophrenia can’t be cured. But its symptoms can be treated, and with help, schizophrenics can live a normal and happy life. It takes the care of dedicated and compassionate mental health professionals who understand schizophrenia. It takes the understanding and patience of family and friends. Most importantly, it takes a lack of misunderstandings. It means stopping the self-reinforcing cycle. It means knowing that schizophrenia and substance abuse aren’t inherently linked, and that with work, they never have to be joined.

Bridges to Recovery is a residential mental health treatment facility, specializing in disorders such as schizophrenia, fully equipped to handle co-occurring substance abuse disorders. If you or your loved one suffer from a mental health disorder and co-occurring substance abuse, please reach out to us today.