Schizophrenia is a widely misunderstood brain disorder, and very few people are familiar with the links that exist between schizophrenia and substance abuse. Here is a look at schizophrenia and how it relates to drug and alcohol addiction.

What Is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a severe and chronic brain disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and acts. People with schizophrenia may hear voices or see things that aren’t really there. They may also be plagued by thoughts of paranoia, believing that someone is reading their mind, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them.

Individuals with schizophrenia can exhibit a wide variety of symptoms.

Many will “lose touch” with some aspects of reality, either continuously or in a come-and-go manner. They may experience hallucinations in any of the five senses, with hearing voices as the most common type of hallucination. These voices may sound internal, as if they are coming from within the mind, or they may sound external, as if someone nearby is speaking. These voices typically talk to the person about their behavior, command the person to do things, or warn of danger. Other common symptoms include delusions (such as a belief that the people on television are directing a special message to them, or that someone is plotting to harm them); difficulty organizing thoughts (such as speaking in “word salad”); repeating certain motions over and over; unresponsiveness and lack of movement (catatonia); reduced expression of emotion; difficulty beginning or sustaining activities; and poor cognition.

Schizophrenia is not as common as other mental disorders, but it remains a very debilitating one nonetheless. Approximately 7 or 8 of 1,000 people will have schizophrenia in their lifetime.

Schizophrenia and Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is the most common co-occurring disorder in those with schizophrenia, and it can complicate treatment for schizophrenia significantly. This is because substance abuse disorders can make treatment for schizophrenia less effective, and those who do have an addiction are less likely to engage in treatment for their schizophrenia.

The connection between substance abuse and schizophrenia has been studied at great length, and so far experts have not concluded that those with schizophrenia use substances to self-medicate their symptoms. Even so, substance abuse is more common in those with schizophrenia than it is in those without a mental illness. Experts are exploring whether or not there may be a biological basis for this.

Nicotine is the most commonly abused drug among people with schizophrenia. Some studies show that nicotine may temporarily alleviate some cognitive symptoms associated with schizophrenia, but those benefits are largely outweighed by other negative effects of nicotine on cognitive functions and general health. Reducing or quitting smoking does not seem to make schizophrenia symptoms worse.

Marijuana use is also more common among those with schizophrenia. Heavy marijuana use is especially dangerous for those with schizophrenia because it can make for more severe and earlier onset of symptoms. So far, however, research does not seem to show that marijuana use directly causes schizophrenia.

For those who exhibit schizophrenia and a substance addiction, the most successful approach to treatment is a treatment program that integrates treatment methods for both conditions.