Understanding Substance Abuse and Schizophrenia

Many times drug abuse and mental and behavioral issues go hand-in-hand. The two are not always evaluated and addressed together, which is why many rehab centers fail. For successful, long-term sobriety, you must be treated for both, which is known as dual diagnosis treatment.

If you abuse drugs or alcohol, there may be an underlying mental or behavioral issue that makes sobriety more difficult for you to achieve. For example, about 46 percent of people with schizophrenia abuse drugs and/or alcohol. And by treating a patient for both schizophrenia and an addiction, he or she learns to cope with mental and behavioral issues that may have led to an addiction, or vice versa.

Understanding schizophrenia and drug abuse can help you or a family member recognize the problem – and seek the best treatment for both.

What Is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is mental disorder that causes a person to adopt a distorted sense of reality. A person suffering with this condition may exhibit bizarre behavior and a fragmented personality. Symptoms of schizophrenia may develop slowly over months or years, or it may occur abruptly.

Some common early symptoms to watch for include the following:

  • Feeling irritable or tense
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Inability to function normally in social situations

As the disease progresses, other symptoms begin to emerge such as the following:

  • Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • Holding strong to beliefs that aren’t real (delusions)
  • Isolating one’s self from others
  • Showing little or no emotion
  • Talking in a way that doesn’t make sense
  • Having thoughts that jump between different topics (loose associations)
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

While schizophrenia generally occurs during the teenage years or early adulthood, it can also occur later in life. It is a complex disease, and medical professionals cannot pinpoint a definite cause. However, it is believed that heredity plays a role.

Possible Causes of Schizophrenia

While the exact cause of schizophrenia is difficult to pinpoint, doctors believe that heredity plays a role in who develops the condition. If a close family member like a parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt or uncle has the condition, you’re at an increased risk.

Researchers believe that genes are not the only factor that determines whether a person develops schizophrenia. It is also believed that long-term substance abuse can lead to psychosis and schizophrenia due to altered brain chemistry.

Can Drug Abuse Cause Schizophrenia?

People who have mental or behavioral disorders have an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain, namely dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters, and an imbalance affects the way a person reacts to certain stimuli, including drugs and alcohol.

It is also thought that genes interact with environmental factors. This means if a person who is genetically vulnerable to the disease abuses drugs, the addiction interacts with the vulnerability. This can possibly result in the development of drug-induced schizophrenia.

The Relationship Between Drug Use and Schizophrenia

With the proper medications, most people with schizophrenia improve. Others, especially in the earlier stages of the disease, experience trouble functioning and suffer repeated episodes.

Those who struggle with the condition and find it difficult to manage have an increased risk of complications. One common complication is drug and alcohol abuse. Using these substances increases the likelihood that symptoms will return.

Substance abuse is also common in schizophrenic patients who stop taking their medications.

Schizophrenia and Substance Abuse

Addiction and schizophrenia are both brain diseases. If you are vulnerable to one, you may be vulnerable to the other. This is because addiction and mental illness involve the same chemicals, pathways and molecules of the brain.

Consider the following two facts:

  • Schizophrenics and cocaine users both have the same increased dopamine activity and dysfunctional reward pathways.


  • Mood disorders and alcoholism are both associated with fluctuations of serotonin levels in the brain.

Researchers believe that certain substances, when taken in excess, can lead to drug-induced schizophrenia. While there is still a lot to learn about the connection between genes, drug abuse and schizophrenia, there is evidence that the illicit use of certain drugs can lead to the condition.


Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the main active ingredient in marijuana. THC strongly affects two of the brain’s structures, the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. These structures play a role in your ability to make judgments and to access and form memories. These are the same brain structures that show altered function and disorganization in the schizophrenic brain.

Each time you smoke marijuana, the THC alters function in these areas of the brain and temporarily causes several of the same symptoms associated with schizophrenia. With long-term use or abuse, THC’s effects on the brain increase the risk of developing the disorder, especially in people who are already genetically at risk for the disease.


Many people with schizophrenia abuse alcohol. Many schizophrenics use alcohol to self-medicate. Sufferers believe the alcohol can help alleviate the symptoms of the conditions and the side effects of schizophrenic medications. However, in most cases, alcohol actually makes these things worse, not better.

Research shows a connection between long-term alcohol abuse and the development of schizophrenia.


Evidence exists that supports the hypothesis that schizophrenics experience dopamine over-activity. Stimulants, like amphetamines and cocaine, actually increase dopamine activity in the brain.

Studies show that stimulants that increase dopamine production can induce psychosis in healthy individuals and make mental conditions, like schizophrenia, worse. It is also thought that over time, abuse of these stimulants (known as psycho-stimulants) can cause hallucinations and thought disorders.

There is no evidence to prove that these substances definitively lead to the development of schizophrenia. However, they are known to cause schizophrenic-like symptoms such as the following:

  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Being out of touch with reality

Evidence suggests that certain drugs may lead to the development of schizophrenia, but this does not mean that it happens in all individuals.

Whether a person develops the mental or behavioral disorder or the substance abuse first, the treatment used must address both problems.

Can Schizophrenia Be Prevented?

While genes may make you more susceptible to the disease, environmental factors and drug and alcohol abuse can increase your risk. It is said that 85 percent of people with family members who have schizophrenia never develop the condition themselves.

It is thought that good nutrition, exercise, good prenatal care, and avoiding head injuries can all lower your risk of schizophrenia. There is no single precautionary measure you can take against developing it. But if it runs in your family, you can take good care of yourself and avoid using and abusing drugs and alcohol to help prevent it from manifesting.

Dual Diagnosis of Drug Addiction and Schizophrenia

Dual Diagnosis is the term used to describe a person with a mental or behavioral disorder, like schizophrenia, and substance abuse problems. The relationship between the two can be complex, but it is often considered in three different ways:

  • Self-medication. People with mental or behavioral issues that go undiagnosed or untreated often use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. This leads to substance abuse because the person uses more of a substance to feel better, which provides only temporary relief. The abuse actually makes the condition worse.
  • Worsening mental illness. People diagnosed with mental illness who choose to use drugs or alcohol often experience more severe symptoms after use. This can occur with acute intoxication or during withdrawals from a substance.
  • First episode psychosis. Sometimes, otherwise healthy individuals may develop paranoid or delusional behavior after using drugs or alcohol, experiencing the onset of mental illness or a behavioral problem for the first time.

To successfully treat individuals with a dual diagnosis, both conditions must be addressed simultaneously. Treating one without the other can lead to a relapse.

Rehab centers, like 12 Keys Rehab, understand the importance of treating more than the addiction. If you or loved one has a dual diagnosis, whole treatment is vital. Such treatments combine spirit, science, body, and family for successful long-term plan.

Treatment for Dual Diagnosis

Treating schizophrenia and alcohol and/or substance abuse requires an individualized approach. You are different from others in your same situation, so you deserve individualized treatment, not a cookie-cutter approach.

If you’re looking for a rehab center that offers an individualized approach to treatment, look for the following:

  • One-on-one counseling
  • Small client to staff ratio (a maximum of 5 clients per counselor)
  • A multidisciplinary treatment team to assess and treat a broad range of conditions
  • A strong, supportive community that includes recovered addicts to demonstrate a life in recovery
  • A Sponsor
  • A tested and proven 12-step program that includes cutting-edge mental health and trauma services
  • Ongoing assessment during treatment
  • Strong follow up and support after recovery

The compassionate staff at 12 Keys offers all of the above and more, utilizing the proven 12 Keys Model of Treatment.

Understanding the 12 Keys Model

The 12 Keys model uses ongoing assessments to create individualized treatment plans. You can expect a multifaceted approach that includes the following during your stay in our facility:

  • Detoxification. Detox shouldn’t be a punishment. You can safely, comfortably and completely detox in the hands of the compassionate Dr. Balta, who has 25 years of experience.
  • Psychiatry. Dr. Balta, a board certified psychiatrist and psychotherapist, guides the treatment team, providing diagnosis and treatment of mental health and behavioral issues. He is a respected expert in his field and separates addiction, trauma, and mental health issues to provide the best course of individualized treatment.
  • 12 Step Meetings. As a resident of 12 Keys, you are expected to participate in daily meetings. You will meet with people who understand what you’re going though and help you overcome your problem. These meetings lead to lifelong friendships and provide a safe place to go when times get tough.
  • Peer meetings. You meet with your peers everyday to discuss anything and everything, how you feel you are doing, and anything that is bothering you. Mental health techs and recovery coaches supervise the meeting and take notes. The meetings are run by the clients to help instill a sense of responsibility, commitment and accountability.
  • Meal times. Meals are approved by a nutritionist and prepared by a chef. Meal time is a good opportunity to relax and talk to others in the program.
  • Recreation. Recreational activities offer you time to relax and enjoy yourself while taking a break from your therapy and treatment. You learn that living a sober life can be fun as you participate in a variety of activities, such as horseback riding on the beach, kayaking, deep sea fishing, and stand-up paddle boarding.
  • Family.  At 12 Keys, family involvement is crucial to your treatment process. Family members are given counseling literature to help establish healthy family boundaries. Family members can participate in-person or on the phone if travel is a problem.
  • Spirit. The 12 steps combine science and spirit. This helps you realize you’re not alone. There are others out there who have gone through what you have, and have found a positive solution to their problem. The process is a journey of discovery that is both engaging and successful.
  • Women Seeking Safety. This program is a nationally recognized and highly effective method of treating trauma, particularly the trauma associated with the addict lifestyle and dysfunctional relationships.

Your First Step to Recovery

Taking the next step in your life – a life in recovery – can be frightening. But with the right treatment program and a caring support system, you will enjoy a healthy, sober life.

Remember that recovery is not cure; there is no cure for addiction. But there is a support system. Treatment programs help you overcome your psychological or physiological dependence on drugs and/or alcohol.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, so you can find the help you need to successfully overcome it. Inpatient rehab centers, like 12 Keys, allow you to live in a comfortable environment, enjoy activities, and take advantage of an individualized approach to combating both substance abuse and mental or behavioral disorders.

Don’t let alcohol, drugs, or mental or behavioral issues prevent you from living sober life. If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction and/or mental illness, take steps right away to find a treatment that allows the healing and transformation to begin.

Contact 12 Keys

Our waterfront facility offers a safe place for detox in an inpatient setting. It’s a place where you can begin working through your issues and repair the damaged caused to yourself and others due to your addiction.

Once you’re ready to leave addiction behind you and enjoy a life of sobriety, contact 12 Keys Rehab. Our empathetic staff has been where you are, and can help you begin your journey toward a sober, healthy life. Your journey begin can begin with one phone call – a journey that leads to a fun, exciting life of sobriety.

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