Can Drugs Trigger Serious Mental Illness?

The dangers of drug and alcohol abuse include the possibility of severe mental illness. Even when mental health disorders are caused by substance abuse, treatment is necessary—for the psychiatric symptoms and substance use disorder alike.

It is true that drugs and alcohol can provoke mental illness and possibly cause permanent cognitive damage. Distressing psychiatric symptoms can result from the nature of the substance abuse, from acute intoxication, or from withdrawal. The symptoms and the progression of psychiatric distress are unpredictable and very risky.

Because many drugs can trigger mental illness, untreated addiction poses very serious dangers. The side effects may be temporary or more long-term, and it is difficult to assess the damage or to initiate true recovery without clinical attention. Dual-diagnosis treatment may be necessary to help clients manage their substance use disorder and co-occurring drug-induced disorder(s). In a treatment center, clinicians can monitor a client’s symptoms and any changes. They can also ensure that a person is as comfortable as possible, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Most importantly, they can help to set the individual on a path of recovery and progressive health.

What Drugs Can Trigger Mental Illness?

Drug-induced mental illness is a serious and dangerous situation that will likely get much worse without healing intervention. The mind-altering effects of drugs and alcohol can be a powerful incentive for people to use and abuse them, but these effects can also bring about real physical and psychological damage. This danger is particularly associated with long-term and heavy substance abuse, but degeneration and mental illness can result even from shorter-term and lighter use.

The following list is not complete; there may be other drug-induced mental disorders possible and offending substances not listed here. But this will give you an idea of some of the dangerous risks of untreated drug and alcohol use.

Substances That Can Trigger Mental Illness


  • Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium
  • Psychostimulants, such as Ritalin, cocaine, Adderall, and other amphetamines
  • Alcohol
  • Hallucinogens
  • Opioids, including prescription drugs


  • Cannabis
  • Psychostimulants
  • Alcohol
  • Combinations of mind-altering drugs


  • Alcohol
  • Psychostimulants
  • Opioids, such as heroin and prescription painkillers
  • Sedatives, such as Benzodiazepines



  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Opioids


  • Alcohol
  • Psychostimulants


  • Opioids
  • Benzodiazepines and other sedative-hypnotics

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Do Drug-Induced Disorders Require Treatment?

Only an expert diagnosis can determine whether the presenting mental illness is dependent on the use of substances (in other words, the mental disorder would not have arisen if not for the introduction of drugs or alcohol) or whether it is independent but possibly triggered by substance use. As clearly as we can draw this line hypothetically, it is not as easy to draw the line in actuality to characterize an individual’s mental health experience.

To complicate matters further, it is certainly possible for substance-induced disorders and disorders independent of substance use to occur at the same time. Remember, too, that substance abuse is often a form of self-medication; a person’s original distress could be due to a serious mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis.

Therefore, it is increasingly important for someone to receive a thorough clinical evaluation and diagnosis. Everyone responds to substances and substance withdrawal at least a bit differently. So it’s not easy to predict how their experience will progress, nor is it easy to draw conclusions about the cause of their symptoms. A careful diagnosis is the first step toward recovery. Even if a person’s psychiatric symptoms turn out to be entirely dependent on their use of drugs or alcohol, it is still critical that they receive comprehensive treatment—both for their substance use disorder and for their substance-induced disorder.

Some drug-induced disorders last only a short time and the symptoms pass when the substance passes from someone’s system, but some disorders can take longer to recover. Some disorders, such as dementia, may be invisible during much of a person’s active drug use, only to present with serious symptoms much later. In some cases, significant cognitive damage has occurred as a result of substance abuse, and over the long term, a person will need to learn to adjust to life from this altered state. In any case, early clinical attention is important to stop any more damage in its tracks and to begin the process of turning the person’s life back around.

What to Expect from Treatment

Treatment can address a person’s substance use disorder and the underlying challenges that provoke their substance abuse. They can learn and practice healthier strategies for coping with their stress and managing triggers. And they will have the support to once again prioritize their higher goals in life. At the same time and in the same place, they can receive clinical care for co-occurring mental illness, whether drug-induced or independent. In this way, the healing and clinical problem-solving are integrated. And the solutions are also integrated for better long-term recovery results.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders, eating disorders, and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward healing.