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What Causes Psychosis in Teens?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Witnessing your teen going through a psychotic episode can be confusing and scary. You may wonder what the cause of psychosis is, and why your teen developed it.

While every teen is different, and everyone’s clinical history and symptoms vary, there are a few common causes of psychosis. We list them here.

Teen Mental Illness

The most common cause of psychosis is actually a mental health issue. Schizophrenia is the most typical. While schizophrenia is usually diagnosed in adults, the symptoms can start developing in adolescents. Teens with schizophrenia can start becoming paranoid, withdraw from others, have difficulty organizing their thoughts and speech, and more. Many times, these symptoms go hand-in-hand with severe hallucinations and delusions that disrupt their daily functioning.

In addition to schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, other mental health conditions can result in psychosis. Bipolar disorder, severe depression, and anxiety can also cause teens to lose their grasp on reality if these issues are left untreated.

Teen Trauma

Traumatic events can also cause psychosis. Sexual abuse, for example, has been highly linked to psychosis (and mental health disorders involving psychosis). Research on adolescents in Los Angeles shows that childhood sexual abuse is a significant predictor for auditory hallucinations (Mundy, 1990). The teens who were abused as kids were more likely to hear things, later on in their lives. Such hallucinations are “a survivors’ strategy, a sane reaction to insane circumstances,” says Eleanor Longden, an award-winning author and public speaker who shared her experience with schizophrenia in a widely publicized TED Talk. Longden, who attributed her psychosis to specific traumas from her childhood, developed schizophrenia in college.

Lauren Cona, LCSW, Clinical Program Director at Evolve Woodland Hills, says that childhood trauma can also lead to extrasensory experiences, psychosis, and PTSD.

Teen Drug Use

 Certain mind-altering drugs can also cause, or contribute to, psychosis. “Teens who use substances are very vulnerable because their brains are still developing,” says Cona. Such substances include methamphetamine, LSD, and marijuana. “Teens who are struggling with depression, anxiety, and unresolved trauma are more likely to use substances to cope, and are also at greater risk for the onset of psychotic symptoms,” says Cona, who works with adolescents in Los Angeles. “We also see teenagers experiencing what look like psychotic breaks, but are actually substance-induced episodes. Many times, after a period of sobriety, these symptoms dissipate. If they do not, this tells us there may be underlying mental health issues that need to be addressed.”

Other Factors

Along with substances, there are other factors that contribute to the development of psychosis. Certain incidents can also trigger a psychotic episode. A traumatic brain injury, extreme sleep deprivation, and severe stress can lead to psychosis.

Advice to Parents

Psychosis is a complex issue that could be a result of several different issues combined. Of course, it’s important to mention that just because your teen experienced a trauma, or is struggling with a mental health issue, or is using drugs, doesn’t mean they will go on to experience psychosis. A psychotic episode is the culmination of several environmental, biological and emotional factors that have all interacted together, causing a teen to lose touch with reality.

It’s also important to mention that someone can experience psychosis without being diagnosed with it. A one-time psychotic episode is surprisingly common in the U.S. – three out of 100 people will experience it at least once in their lives.

I Think My Teen is Experiencing Psychosis

If you think your adolescent is developing psychosis, it’s important to visit a mental health professional immediately. Take your teen to the psychiatric hospital if they’re in the throes of an episode. There, they will receive 24/hour monitoring and treatment for stabilization. After discharge from the hospital, you can then start looking for a residential treatment center that specializes in treating teens with psychosis.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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