What’s the Link Between Alcohol and Schizophrenia?

People with schizophrenia can face a number of challenges: getting a diagnosis, getting treatment, and learning to live with a mental illness.

Schizophrenia also carries a higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse. Scientists believe this is due to your genes, shared changes in brain pathways, or a way to cope with the symptoms and side effects of the disease.

Schizophrenia and alcohol abuse

Researchers have primarily studied the effects of cannabis and nicotine on people with schizophrenia. But they also found that other things that change your nervous system and mood (called psychoactive substances), such as alcohol, can trigger psychosis for the first time. This is especially true for young people who are at a higher risk for schizophrenia, such as those with a family history of the disease. Alcohol also affects the brain’s reward systems, and research links changes in this area of ​​the brain to schizophrenia.

Abuse of alcohol alone for long periods of time can cause psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, which is when you see, smell, hear, or smell something that is not there. “These symptoms can mimic or overlap with the symptoms of schizophrenia and seem to ‘trigger’ a psychotic episode,” says Kamal Bhatia, MD, psychiatrist at Sheppard Pratt of Baltimore, a nonprofit provider of mental health, addiction and services. other services.

People with schizophrenia are also more vulnerable to drug addiction. A large study shows that 47% have drug or alcohol problems, compared to 16% of people without the disease. Other recent research suggests that this group is three times more likely to drink alcohol. In fact, it is the second most used psychoactive substance by people with schizophrenia.

Experts have a few theories as to the reason for this situation. The first is that you are more likely to have schizophrenia or to abuse alcohol if you have a family history of these conditions. Researchers are also studying the link between biomarkers (molecules in your body that suggest disease), alcohol abuse, and schizophrenia. Others believe that some people abuse alcohol to relieve symptoms of psychosis or the side effects of antipsychotic drugs.


Many people with schizophrenia hear disturbing things that aren’t really there, become paranoid, have trouble connecting with others, and have cognitive impairment, says David Goldsmith, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Science of Behavior at Emory University School of Medicine. “There has long been a theory that patients can abuse substances, including alcohol, to self-medicate.”

But many people abuse alcohol before they get schizophrenia, which suggests that self-medication is not always the link. Also, if you have this condition and are dependent on alcohol, your symptoms will make your symptoms worse, not better.

Warning signs of schizophrenia and alcohol

Many people with schizophrenia go through what Goldsmith calls a “downward social drift”. They may find themselves homeless, isolated or with legal problems, and they are more likely to need emergency services. “Unfortunately, our prisons and prisons are currently the largest providers of mental health care in our country.”

People with mental health problems who abuse a lot of drugs and alcohol tend to have worse health problems and repeat relapses because they may not stick to a treatment plan.

If you’re worried about someone you love, watch for changes in mood and behavior such as:

Treatment of schizophrenia and alcohol abuse

Long-term alcohol abuse and mental illness are lifelong conditions, as are illnesses such as high blood pressure or diabetes. “As with other conditions, these can also be managed by getting the right help at an early stage,” Bhatia says. “Suffering in isolation is not healthy or is not the only choice available.”

He adds that getting help is even more crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people are more isolated and may miss regular check-ups. The first step is to contact your family doctor, who can suggest treatment options or refer you to a mental health professional. The sooner you get treatment and stick to it, the more likely you are to recover.

Treatment centers may be reluctant to take on the challenge of treating people who have both schizophrenia and alcohol problems, Goldsmith says. But since alcohol abuse and schizophrenia often occur together, it’s important to treat both conditions at the same time.

Double strength treatment reduces your risk of relapse and improves your quality of life and the chances that you will continue to take your medications. Treatment may involve individual or group therapy with prescription drugs. If you can’t see a doctor, talk to your family and friends. They can also monitor changes in mood and behavior.



Kamal Bhatia, MD, Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore.

David Goldsmith, MD, Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

PSYCOM: “Schizophrenia and drug addiction”.

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