Can Drugs Make You Insane?

Q: Dear Iron Shrink,

Can drugs make you insane? My mom and dad say that they can but I think it’s just a scare tactic. - Michael, Dallas

A: Dear Michael,

methamphetamine induced psychosisIf by “insane” your parents are referring to hallucinations, delusions, wildly unpredictable behavior, self-destructiveness, and the potential to spend years in prison or a state hospital, then the answer is: yes, drugs can make you insane.

Take the example of Jack (that isn’t his real name, and details of his story have been changed). Jack first discovered methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant, during his teenage years. Meth is cheap, easy to buy, and highly addictive. By his mid-20’s Jack was using meth in high enough quantities that he experienced two long episodes (that he remembers) of Amphetamine-Induced Psychosis.

The word “psychosis” refers to a disconnection with reality. An individual suffering psychotic symptoms may experience hallucinations in which he hears, sees, or feels things that are not there, such as mumbling voices or bugs crawling on his skin. He might also experience delusions, which are strongly held irrational beliefs.

Jack, for example, held the delusional belief that his girlfriend had planted government listening devices around his home. A person suffering psychosis can also experience bizarre thought processes, such as answering questions by reciting words that begin with a certain letter. And psychosis often includes lack of insight, which is the inability to recognize that anything is wrong. Incidentally, psychosis is not a diagnosis, but a set of symptoms. Like a fever, psychosis can accompany many conditions, including substance abuse.

Imaginary men in black

One of Jack’s psychotic episodes included the belief that he was being pursued by the FBI. This led him to spend nearly a month frantically traveling the country in an attempt to escape imaginary government agents. He burned through his savings buying gas, hotel rooms, meth, and by paying people for protection and information about the FBI. He finally freed himself from his delusions when he publicly and conspicuously poured a bag of flour down a drainpipe, thereby fooling the imaginary FBI agents into believing that he had gotten rid of all of his drugs.

By the time I met Jack he had been off meth for more than a month, mostly because he was in prison. You might imagine that Jack’s psychotic symptoms were gone by then, but you’d be wrong. Jack still wasn’t sure whether the FBI had been pursuing him. He was still hearing voices, and he was still highly suspicious of those around him. In other words, Jack was still a little bit “insane.” (“Insanity” is actually a legal term, not medical, but I’ll let it slide this time since your parents are on my side.)

More than one way to go crazy

Here’s the deal with stimulant drugs like meth. Some stimulants act by increasing the amount of a chemical called dopamine in certain parts of brain. Schizophrenia, a serious mental disorder characterized by psychotic symptoms, is also associated with dopamine imbalances. Is there a connection? Some people think that the amphetamine-induced psychosis is similar in cause and nature to schizophrenia. Some people even think that using drugs like meth makes a person more susceptible to conditions like schizophrenia even after they stop taking the drug (see Adeyemo, 2002).

That’s all up for debate, but there is no doubt that Jack paid a heavy price for his meth use and it’s entirely possible that his addiction will have life-long psychotic effects. Why is he still having trouble? It could be that methamphetamine actually induced lasting psychotic symptoms in Jack, or it could be that running frantically from the FBI was such a powerful experience that his delusion seems real in retrospect. Either way, Jack has four to six years behind bars to figure it out.

Stimulants aren’t the only drugs that lead to psychosis. Another major class of drugs is the depressants (the first being stimulants like meth). These include such things as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and alcohol.

These, too, can lead to any number of lasting mental problems. Drink enough booze, for example, and you may come down with a debilitating mental illness called Korsakoff’s Psychosis. This condition is characterized by a severe deficit in short-term memory, usually accompanied by confabulated imaginary experiences that fill in the memory gaps. Imagine forgetting what you did this morning and simply making up a story about your day – all without deciding to do so. Korsakoff’s Psychosis can also include delusions, delirium, confusion, anxiety, and depression. Is that insane enough for ya’?

The moral of today’s story, Michael? If you’re looking for a way to go crazy have kids, not drugs. At least you won’t end up in prison.

-IS

References:
Adeyemo, S. A. (2002). Can the action of amphetamine on dopamine cause schizophrenia? Psychology & Education: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 39(1), 29-39.

9 comments

  • thanks. this helped for school

  • I just started researching this but, will this whole “gone crazy” blow over? or is it permanent. my cousin used to deal with a lot of different types of drugs and now he is medically classified as schizophrenic, he has been this way for the past year and has been in multiple rehab homes. most recently he has been hearing voices and staring blankly into the wall with little to no response to human interaction. A little background on him. 4.1833 culm gpa in high school. Amazing basketball player and track champion. Please tell me that their is a solution or any hope at all. He is 25 years old.

    • Hi Ascends, it would be unethical of me to venture a guess about your cousin. In general, I’ve not seen this kind of damage get better, but people can definitely learn ways to cope with it and live a happy and productive life. The specifics, though, are good questions for your cousin’s physicians.

  • my mother smoked crack for over ten years and now she is mentally unable to care for herself. She also hears and sees things that are not there. I now have to take care of her for the rest of her life.

    • That’s very sad to hear, Jewels. I’ve seen similar cases where speed-type drugs lead to long-term psychosis. I hope your mother is at least getting the treatment she needs to be as independent as possible.

  • christoher moore

    to who this may concern i ive been educating my` self n understanding the acknowledge of the theory of pyshicafrinea n the aftereffects when upon taking this drug( meth amphetamines )and also how long it occurs n what signs we should look out for so if when stumbled upon a mentality unstable patient and the stages it takes toll on the human as well as the mind . but what im really wanting to no is does the unstable underknlowdge dangerous drug they call meth amphetamines make ones mind smarter or does the aftereffects trickk the brain in thinking its smart n knowing in other words (in a junky words scatter out ) please take this as a thoughtt as i am on a unknown basics user n fully acknowldge the practical n therory on what this dangerous drug does would be greatful if u could please take the time n read that ones mind is ones scattered.

  • I believe some of your information is not correct, benzodiazepines will not cause psychosis upon intoxication. they might cause psychosis if you are heavily dependant on them and you cease them abruptly. it is very rare that this is not the case, as this class of drugs would have been used in conjunction with other drug to control this persons behaviour.

    • Hi Nick – OK, that’s a fair point about benzos. I’m not aware that they lead to psychosis upon intoxication, but I have seen some pretty ugly withdrawal symptoms from depressants. I’m not sure your distinction really makes a difference though. Whether it’s psychosis secondary to intoxication (as with meth) or resulting from withdrawal (as with benzos or alcohol), the drug is still the proximate cause.

  • My childhood friend was one of the coolest kids in school. He was handsome, all the girls like him, and he had lots of friends. In early 2000’s word is: “they slipped something in his drink” and he hasn’t been the same since that incident. Now, he giggles to himself, wanders around, hears voices, cant live alone, and doesn’t recognize people from the past… its so SAD…. a bright future, now just he’s just disconnected from reality :(

    My question: can it really happen that way? Can someone just “Put something in your drink or weed” and then you are never the same and crazy for the rest of your life??? if so, what drug could do that to a person?? What other factors contribute to this outcome, especially if other people drank the drink or smoked and are still normal?

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