The connection between alcohol abuse and schizophrenia is intensely debated by psychologists. It can be a “chicken and egg” issue: Which came first? Which condition fuels the other? What is the link between the two disorders, and how does that affect the course of treatment that therapists use for their patients? This subject is as complex as the real people who suffer from both disorders.
What Is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a mental health disorder that affects a person’s perception of reality. The most common symptoms of schizophrenia are hallucinations or delusions: seeing or hearing things that aren’t real. This type of disordered thinking can have a dramatic effect on a person’s ability to function in day-to-day life.
It’s common for people with schizophrenia to display behaviors like aimless wandering, ignoring personal hygiene, and laughing or mumbling to themselves. However, with therapy and medication – or a combination of both – people with schizophrenia are able to live full, productive lives.
What Is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism, or alcohol abuse, involves difficulty controlling your drinking. A person who consumes several drinks in a short period – otherwise called “binge drinking” – is constantly preoccupied with alcohol, finds it difficult to function without alcohol, and may struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Binge drinking in men looks like consuming five or more drinks within two hours or less; binge drinking among women looks like at least four drinks in the same time frame.
Some people struggling with alcoholism need to consume a certain amount of alcohol in order to experience a particular euphoric effect. They may also experience severe withdrawal symptoms when they don’t drink or don’t consume as much as usual. If you or a loved one experiences difficulty functioning in daily life as a result of alcohol use, it’s possible that AUD is present.
How Are Alcoholism and Schizophrenia Connected?
The symptoms of alcoholism and schizophrenia are incredibly similar, particularly the tendency to have hallucinations or delusions. While psychosis caused by alcohol is not an official mental health diagnosis, it is considered a symptom of something more serious.
In many cases, an individual with schizophrenia may find that their symptoms subside when they reduce their alcohol intake. We may not know for sure if alcohol abuse causes schizophrenia, but psychologists are quite confident that alcohol makes schizophrenic symptoms worse – particularly when experiencing withdrawal.
Because the two disorders are so similar, it’s possible for a person to be misdiagnosed. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-V) states that an accurate diagnosis of schizophrenia is not possible if it is known that the individual abuses drugs or alcohol. Even qualified medical professionals can have difficulties separating the two conditions. However, a thorough inventory of the individual’s medical history can help ensure an accurate diagnosis.
How Common Is Alcohol Abuse Among People With Schizophrenia?
Substance abuse, in general, is common among people with schizophrenia, from marijuana to nicotine to alcohol. Substances that alter the function of the nervous system and mood can trigger psychosis in people who have a high risk of schizophrenia. Alcohol is known to target the “reward system” part of the brain, the same part most affected by schizophrenia. This is why the two conditions are believed to fuel each other. As symptoms of schizophrenia and alcoholism develop, they may overlap, ultimately triggering psychotic episodes that include hallucinations.
Can Alcohol Cause Schizophrenia?
Many people with schizophrenia experience other co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression, but the most common is alcohol abuse. It is estimated that nearly half of the people diagnosed with AUD also meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental health disorder. This is because alcohol can be used as a way to self-medicate; it dulls the senses, temporarily providing relief from schizophrenia symptoms. However, this relief is short-lived because, ultimately, alcohol makes hallucinations worse.
If alcohol causes schizophrenia, it’s believed to do so among people who were already at high risk for it. This could be due to genetics and other family patterns. However, this data suggests a link at best, not concrete evidence that alcohol directly causes schizophrenia.
What Are Common Signs of Alcohol Abuse With Schizophrenia?
A person with both alcoholism and schizophrenia may experience the following symptoms:
- Failure to take basic care of themselves
- Self-harming behavior
- Increased aggression or violence
- Missing school, work, or other appointments
- Repeated hospital visits
How Is Co-Occurring Alcoholism and Schizophrenia Treated?
Because these conditions appear together so frequently, they both need to be treated at the same time. Both treatments may involve addiction treatment programs, medications, and therapy. Alcohol can exacerbate symptoms of schizophrenia, meaning it’s important to monitor an individual as they experience withdrawal. This may involve medical stabilizing for possible respiratory, circulatory, and neurological side effects. An individual withdrawing from alcohol may also experience nausea, anxiety, tremors, and possibly seizures.
Alcoholism and schizophrenia are two mental health disorders that can be very isolating. The person experiencing one or both of these disorders may feel a degree of shame about admitting they have a problem. This can make it challenging to get the help they need. If you recognize symptoms of alcohol abuse or schizophrenia in yourself or a loved one, it’s essential to seek help. There is no shame in seeking help; silence only allows the problems to worsen. At Crownview Co-Occurring Institute, our licensed, professional, and compassionate staff will carefully evaluate your medical history for an accurate diagnosis. Once your condition has been assessed, we will work with you to formulate a treatment plan to help you live fully and productively. Treatment may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Don’t suffer in silence; help is waiting. Call Crownview Co-Occurring Institute today at (760) 477-4754.