Having a psychotic episode can be scary – for the teen undergoing it, and the parent witnessing it. Psychosis can best be described as an out-of-mind experience. It involves hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.
While many are aware of the relationship between psychosis to mental health disorders (like schizophrenia), less is known about drug-induced psychosis.
Many teens may experience psychosis after using certain mind-altering drugs. While these drugs may not have the same effect in adults, in adolescents they will cause psychosis—or at least contribute to it—because a young teen’s brain is still developing.
Drugs That Can Cause Psychosis in Teens
Many drugs can induce psychosis. These include:
Examples of hallucinogens include LSD, Ketamine, mushrooms, peyote, and PCP. Hallucinogens, also called Psychedelics, are a group of drugs that alter a person’s consciousness and awareness of their surroundings. Teens who take these drugs often start hallucinating, entertaining delusions, and undergoing all the other symptoms of psychosis. Dissociative drugs, a subtype of hallucinogens, can cause a teen to have out-of-body experiences. Hallucinations can also occur during withdrawal from alcohol or drugs if you suddenly stop taking them.
Another name for Ecstasy is MDMA or Molly. Many teens use Ecstasy as a recreational drug to lessen their inhibitions at parties/raves. However, MDMA can cause people to experience psychosis, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, extreme anger, and severe paranoia. In fact, research shows that teens can start having psychotic episodes even after using Ecstasy for just one time. (In one study, the psychosis persisted for days afterwards.) Ecstasy-induced psychotic disorder often looks like schizophrenia, with a few differences—such as the fact that there are no prodromal symptoms.
At very high doses, meth can induce psychosis, along with a host of other negative side effects. Studies show that at least a quarter of teens who abuse meth go on to experience drug-induced psychosis. Even teens with no history of mental health issues are three times more likely to experience hallucinations and delusions when they chronically use meth. Even after a teen stops using meth, the psychotic symptoms can stick around for years. (Sometimes, stress can re-trigger the symptoms.)
Evidence shows a link between marijuana usage and psychosis, especially in teens who use marijuana daily. However, most of the data is correlative, not causative. While there’s a statistical relationship between daily use of high potency cannabis and psychosis, many researchers admit there may be a genetic factor at play. Meaning, teens who have a genetic predisposition to psychosis or schizophrenia may also be more likely to engage in regular cannabis use.
Alcohol commonly contributes to psychotic episodes. According to research, heavy alcohol use increases the risk of psychosis eight times for teenage boys and three times for teenage girls. In the majority of cases, stopping the alcohol will stop the symptoms. Other times the psychosis will linger even after the teen stops drinking. (And yet other times psychosis occurs during alcohol withdrawal.) The symptoms of alcohol-induced psychosis often look like the symptoms of schizophrenia.
Many times, teens who end up in drug-induced psychosis engage in polydrug use, which is when they combine these different types of drugs together at the same time (or one after another). These combinations are made even more potent and toxic with the presence of alcohol. Teens who engage in polydrug use are even more likely to experience drug-induced psychosis.
Mental Health Issues and Drug-Induced Psychosis
Mental health professionals often conflate drug-induced psychotic disorder with schizophrenia. But there are a few differences. Firstly, in substance-induced psychosis there are often no prodromal symptoms. Prodromal symptoms are the introductory signs that psychosis is gradually developing. These signs can include an increase in anxiety, social withdrawal, and trouble focusing or concentrating.
There’s often a simultaneous mental health issue at play when a teen experiences drug-induced psychosis.
“For teens whose substance use triggers a psychotic episode, there’s usually something else going on at the same time—a mental health challenge like depression or anxiety, or a history of trauma,” says Lauren Cona, who works with adolescents at Evolve Treatment Centers in Los Angeles.
In some cases, the psychotic episodes stop as soon as a teen quits using the drug. Other times, they may persist days and weeks after the teen stops taking the drug. Of course, quitting as early as possible provides the best chances of recovery.
Long-term usage of any substance causes many negative mental and physical health effects, in addition to psychosis. That’s why, if your teen seems to have an addiction issue, it’s important to get them mental health or substance abuse treatment (or dual diagnosis treatment) at an adolescent treatment program. Waiting too long can result in chronic psychotic episodes and other long-term health issues.
Treatment for Drug-Induced Psychosis
If you think your teen is experiencing drug-induced psychosis, take them to a doctor immediately. Your pediatrician or family doctor will be able to conduct an initial exam and order tests to determine what’s causing the psychosis. It could have been a certain recreational drug your teen took, but it also could have been something else. Chronic sleep deprivation, too much stress, and even an electrolyte imbalance in the body can cause hallucinations and delusions. After attempting to find the source, your doctor will prescribe temporary medication until you can get your teen to a mental health or substance abuse treatment center for treatment.
If your teen’s psychosis is due to substance abuse, your teen will need to admit to a detox program and a substance abuse treatment center for adolescents. There, your teen will receive individual and family therapy (to address any emotional issues that are not being addressed) as well as psychiatry sessions for medical management (if necessary). Some teens benefit from taking anti-psychotic medications, while for others it’s not recommended.
If your teen’s psychosis is so severe that he or she can barely function throughout the day, and might be a danger to themselves and others, they will probably need a residential treatment center for adolescents. At a teen treatment center, your teen will receive 24/7 monitoring and treatment for stabilization.