Self-Medicating Schizophrenia

For many years, young people were commonly warned that substance abuse and addiction would lead to schizophrenia, and it’s true that the use of certain drugs can trigger psychosis and other symptoms, which might fit the diagnosis of schizophrenia. However, it has become evident that the opposite is more often the case – people turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the debilitating and frightening symptoms of schizophrenia, often beginning before the presence of the illness is recognized.

Schizophrenia is a severe psychotic disorder marked by delusions, paranoia, confusion and hallucinations involving all five senses. People with schizophrenia often experience increasingly disordered thought processes. They may hear voices or believe in things or situations that aren’t real, or they may think they are invincible. They tend to have great difficulty interacting with others in social settings.

Despite common beliefs, people with schizophrenia are rarely violent, although like the rest of the population, they are more likely to be aggressive if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Schizophrenia doesn’t cause people to commit rape or murder, but the illness is greatly misunderstood and stigma and stereotypes continue to exist.

The National Institute of Health estimates that schizophrenia affects approximately 1 percent of the population in the United States. Unfortunately, the disease is seldom diagnosed until the symptoms are pronounced and severe, usually when people are in their mid-teens to early 30s.

It’s not surprising that people with schizophrenia often turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to feel better, or that substance abuse disorders are common for people with the disorder. It is estimated that one-third to half of all schizophrenics use alcohol, approximately 15 percent abuse drugs and more than 60 percent use nicotine. Alcohol and drugs exacerbate the severity of symptoms, most notably marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines. Unfortunately, people tend to deny the illness and continue to lead a risky lifestyle, often for many years, often until something happens that brings the situation to the forefront.

Schizophrenia paired with substance abuse can be difficult to treat because people with the illness are less likely to comply with treatment plans, often skipping treatment or failing to take medications that can help regulate the disorder. They are also more likely to relapse and have a higher incidence of homelessness. However, in spite of the difficulties, people with schizophrenia can be helped by drug and alcohol treatment or rehab, even when the illness is complicated by substance abuse.

Treatment involves detox followed by counseling and a well-devised treatment plan that addresses both problems concurrently. Medications are sometimes prescribed to treat symptoms and nutritional supplements are used to restore biochemical balance. Family therapy is often recommended. Metacognitive training* is also used to teach people who suffer from Schizophrenia to deal with “the voices in their head” successfully in order to “get a grip” on them and to lower their pain and suffering.

As of yet, there is no cure for schizophrenia. However, highly effective and empathic treatment can be offered and quality of life and life expectancy can be improved. Researchers in neuroscience and genetics continue to study the illness and develop treatments that can improve the outcome for people. Currently, a combination of medical interventions, psychotherapy, restorative/orthomolecular and targeted pharmacotherapy as well as metacognitive training is the most promising approach to treat Schizophrenia and to make the self-medication drugs unnecessary.

*More on metacognitive training can be found here: https://clinical-neuropsychology.de/mct_psychosis_manual_british

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