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What Is Schizophrenia?

Getting its name from the Greek words for “to split” and “mind,” schizophrenia is an extreme mental health condition that affects the way its sufferers interface with reality. Those with schizophrenia may be convinced of fantastical and dangerous beliefs, see or hear things that aren’t there, and struggle to assimilate into society in a meaningful and well-adjusted way. Tragically, schizophrenia and alcohol abuse all too often go together. The reasons for this are complex and multifaceted, with several theories presented below (along with a selection of treatment modalities). First, though, it will be prudent to examine the symptoms of schizophrenia so that the nature of the condition can be better identified and understood.

What Are The Symptoms Of Schizophrenia?

Affecting only 20 million people worldwide, schizophrenia is one of the less common forms of mental illness. Below are some typical symptoms, along with a short description of how each might manifest in the patient.

  • Delusions. These involve firmly held thoughts that have little to no basis in reality. The individual with schizophrenia may believe they’re being watched, that they are a figure of special political or religious significance (even with no evidence to support the claim), or that their thoughts are not their own.
  • Hallucinations. Hallucinations involve a vivid sensory experience that isn’t really occurring, such as seeing someone who isn’t there or hearing voices that don’t exist.
  • Chaotic thought and speech. People with schizophrenia can have difficulty thinking or speaking linearly and may combine seemingly random words together into sentences devoid of any meaning or significance.
  • Difficulty showing emotions. Often those with schizophrenia can be very flat in their facial expressions or monotone in their voice, potentially coming across as stiff or robotic to their observer.
  • Cognitive impairment. Those with schizophrenia might struggle with taking in new information, understanding what’s being said to them, or focusing their attention on any one point.

With symptoms this extreme, it can be easy to see why many struggle with both schizophrenia and alcohol abuse – with self-medication being one reason why the two might co-occur. That theory, along with others, are discussed below.

Why Do Schizophrenia And Alcohol Abuse Co-Occur?

Schizophrenia and alcohol abuse co-occur with a good degree of regularity, and there are several possible explanations as to why. One, as aforementioned, is that the individual living with schizophrenia is self-medicating their symptoms by drinking. This makes intuitive sense, as schizophrenia symptoms can often be accompanied by heavy feelings of panic or fear; alcohol, which can have sedative and calming effects on the drinker, might be one way to counteract these unpleasant emotions.

This hypothesis, logical as it may seem, is not necessarily supported by the research – especially considering that alcohol can sometimes make symptoms worse, and that alcohol abuse quite frequently develops before the onset of schizophrenia. That’s why another explanation, one that involves the brain’s neurotransmitters and reward system, may help explain why those with schizophrenia may also abuse alcohol. However, more research on this notion is needed.

Finally, individuals who struggle with both schizophrenia and abuse alcohol may do so because they often find themselves in environments where substance abuse is the norm. Schizophrenia is disproportionately prevalent in the homeless population, for example, with one approximation finding that 1 in every 5 homeless individuals are afflicted with the disease. Alcohol abuse can be one way to cope with the stressors of an uncertain and often hostile living situation, which might explain why alcohol abuse and schizophrenia sometimes go hand-in-hand.

How Are Schizophrenia And Alcohol Abuse Treated?

One analysis published in the National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism’s scientific journal, Alcohol Research & Health, identified a 4-step process toward treating co-occurring schizophrenia and alcohol abuse. Those steps are as follows:

  • Build trust and rapport with the patient, earning their buy-in and generating interest in treatment.
  • Convince the patient that recovery is important, potentially by sussing out what a patient might stand to gain if their conditions are properly managed.
  • Provide treatment to the patient, imparting coping skills and strategies to manage their conditions.
  • Monitor and prevent relapse.

Of course, the outline above is quite broadly defined, and each individual treatment center may differ in terms of the specific therapies or medications that could be applied to treat both schizophrenia and alcohol abuse.

One such medication is valproic acid, a medicine that regulates emotional fluctuations and may work to treat alcohol addiction in populations with co-occurring disorders. More mainstream alcohol withdrawal treatment medications, like Naltrexone, Disulfiram, and Acamprosate, may also be used to make the detoxification process more safe and more bearable. This medications may also help the user manage cravings, an important part of maintaining sobriety in early recovery.

Making Progress Toward Recovery

Schizophrenia and alcohol abuse can be two formidable foes, especially when they present together. But just because a condition is serious doesn’t mean it can’t be managed. If you’re struggling with symptoms of schizophrenia and/or alcohol abuse, or bearing the burden of any kind of mental health disorder or substance use disorder, you don’t have to do it alone. Contact a treatment provider today to learn about how you can make progress toward recovery and live a happier, healthier, more fulfilling life.