Toxic Effects Of Substances Mimic Mental Illness

The toxic effects of substances can mimic mental illness in ways that can be difficult to distinguish from mental illness.

Description

Alcohol drug

Caffeine

Cocaine and Amphetamines

Hallucinogens

Nicotine

Opioids

Sedatives

Substance-induced disorders are distinct from independent co-occurring mental disorders in that all or most of the psychiatric symptoms are the direct result of substance use. This is not to state that substance-induced disorders preclude co-occurring mental disorders, only that the specific symptom cluster at a specific point in time is more likely the result of substance use, abuse, intoxication, or withdrawal than of underlying mental illness. A client might even have both independent and substance-induced mental disorders. For example, a client may present with well-established independent and controlled bipolar disorder and alcohol dependence in remission, but the same client could be experiencing amphetamine-induced auditory hallucinations and paranoia from an amphetamine abuse relapse over the last 3 weeks.

Symptoms of substance-induced disorders run the gamut from mild anxiety and depression (these are the most common across all substances) to full-blown manic and other psychotic reactions (much less common). The “teeter-totter principle”—i.e., what goes up must come down—is useful to predict what kind of syndrome or symptoms might be caused by what substances. For example, acute withdrawal symptoms from physiological depressants such as alcohol and benzodiazepines are hyperactivity, elevated blood pressure, agitation, and anxiety (i.e., the shakes). On the other hand, those who “crash” from stimulants are tired, withdrawn, and depressed. Virtually any substance taken in very large quantities over a long enough period can lead to a psychotic state.

Because clients vary greatly in how they respond to both intoxication and withdrawal given the same exposure to the same substance, and also because different substances may be taken at the same time, prediction of any particular substance-related syndrome has its limits. What is most important is to continue to evaluate psychiatric symptoms and their relationship to abstinence or ongoing substance abuse over time. Most substance-induced symptoms begin to improve within hours or days after substance use has stopped. Notable exceptions to this are psychotic symptoms caused by heavy and long-term amphetamine abuse and the dementia (problems with memory, concentration, and problem solving) caused by using substances directly toxic to the brain, which most commonly include alcohol, inhalants like gasoline, and again amphetamines. Following is an overview of the most common classes of substances of abuse and the accompanying psychiatric symptoms seen in intoxication, withdrawal, or chronic use.

Alcohol

In most people, moderate to heavy consumption is associated with euphoria, mood lability, decreased impulse control, and increased social confidence (i.e., getting high). Such symptoms might even appear “hypomanic.” However these often are followed with next-day mild fatigue, nausea, and dysphoria (i.e., a hangover). In a person who has many life stresses, losses, and struggles, which is often the case as addiction to alcohol proceeds, the mood lability and lowered impulse control can lead to increased rates of violence toward others and self. Prolonged drinking increases the incidence of dysphoria, anxiety, and such violence potential. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include agitation, anxiety, tremor, malaise, hyperreflexia (exaggeration of reflexes), mild tachycardia (rapid heart beat), increasing blood pressure, sweating, insomnia, nausea or vomiting, and perceptual distortions.

Following acute withdrawal (a few days), some people will experience continued mood instability, fatigue, insomnia, reduced sexual interest, and hostility for weeks, so called “protracted withdrawal.” Differentiating protracted withdrawal from a major depression or anxiety disorder is often difficult. More severe withdrawal is characterized by severe instability in vital signs, agitation, hallucinations, delusions, and often seizures. The best predictor of whether this type of withdrawal may happen again is if it happened before. Alcohol-induced deliriums after high-dose drinking are characterized by fluctuating mental status, confusion, and disorientation and are reversible once both alcohol and its withdrawal symptoms are gone, while by definition, alcohol dementias are associated with brain damage and are not entirely reversible even with sobriety.

Caffeine

When consumed in large quantities, caffeine can cause mild to moderate anxiety, though the amount of caffeine that leads to anxiety varies. Caffeine is also associated with an increase in the number of panic attacks in individuals who are predisposed to them.

Cocaine and Amphetamines

Mild to moderate intoxication from cocaine, methamphetamine, or other stimulants is associated with euphoria, and a sense of internal well-being, and perceived increased powers of thought, strength, and accomplishment. In fact, low to moderate doses of amphetamines may actually increase certain test-taking skills temporarily in those with attention deficit disorders (see this in appendix D) and even in people who do not have attention deficit disorders. However, as more substance is used and intoxication increases, attention, ability to concentrate, and function decrease.

With street cocaine and methamphetamines, dosing is almost always beyond the functional window. As dosage increases, the chances of impulsive dangerous behaviors, which may involve violence, promiscuous sexual activity, and others, also increases. Many who become chronic heavy users go on to experience temporary paranoid delusional states. As mentioned above, with methamphetamines, these psychotic states may last for weeks, months, and even years. Unlike schizophrenic psychotic states, the client experiencing a paranoid state induced by cocaine more likely has intact abstract reasoning and linear thinking and the delusions are more likely paranoid and less bizarre (Mendoza and Miller 1992). After intoxication comes a crash in which the person is desperately fatigued, depressed, and often craves more stimulant to relieve these withdrawal symptoms. This dynamic is why it is thought that people who abuse stimulants often go on week- or month-long binges and have a hard time stopping. At some point the ability of stimulants to push the person back into a high is lost (probably through washing out of neurotransmitters), and then a serious crash ensues.

Even with several weeks of abstinence, many people who are addicted to stimulants report a dysphoric state that is marked by anhedonia (absence of pleasure) and/or anxiety, but which may not meet the symptom severity criteria to qualify as DSM-IV Major Depression (Rounsaville et al. 1991). These anhedonic states can persist for weeks. As mentioned above, heavy, long-term amphetamine use appears to cause long-term changes in the functional structure of the brain, and this is accompanied by long-term problems with concentration, memory, and, at times, psychotic symptoms. Month-long methamphetamine binges followed by week- or month-long alcohol binges, a not uncommon pattern, might appear to be “bipolar” disorder if the drug use is not discovered. For more information, see the National Institute on Drug Abuse Web site (www.nida.nih.gov).

Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens produce visual distortions and frank hallucinations. Some people who use hallucinogens experience a marked distortion of their sense of time and feelings of depersonalization. Hallucinogens may also be associated with drug-induced panic, paranoia, and even delusional states in addition to the hallucinations. Hallucinogen hallucinations usually are more visual (e.g., enhanced colors and shapes) as compared to schizophrenic-type hallucinations, which tend to be more auditory (e.g., voices). The existence of a marijuana-induced psychotic state has been debated (Gruber and Pope 1994), although a review of the research suggests that there is no such entity. A few people who use hallucinogens experience chronic reactions, involving prolonged psychotic reactions, depression, exacerbations of preexisting mental disorders, and flashbacks. The latter are symptoms that occur after one or more psychedelic “trips” and consist of flashes of light and after-image prolongation in the periphery. The DSM-IV defines flashbacks as a “hallucinogen persisting perception disorder.”

Nicotine

Clients who are dependent on nicotine are more likely to experience depression than people who are not addicted to it; however, it is unclear how much this is cause or effect. In some cases, the client may use nicotine to regulate mood. Whether there is a causal relationship between nicotine use and the symptoms of depression remains to be seen. At present, it can be said that many persons who quit smoking do experience both craving and depressive symptoms to varying degrees, which are relieved by resumption of nicotine use (see chapter 8 for more information on nicotine dependence).

Opioids

Opioid intoxication is characterized by intense euphoria and well-being. Withdrawal results in agitation, severe body aches, gastrointestinal symptoms, dysphoria, and craving to use more opioids. Symptoms during withdrawal vary—some will become acutely anxious and agitated, while others will experience depression and anhedonia. Even with abstinence, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance can persist for weeks as a protracted withdrawal syndrome. Again, differentiating this from major depression or anxiety is difficult and many clinicians may just treat the ongoing symptom cluster. For many people who become opioid dependent, and then try abstinence, these ongoing withdrawal symptoms are so powerful that relapse occurs even with the best of treatments and client motivation. For these clients, opioid replacement therapy (methadone, suboxone, etc.) becomes necessary and many times life saving. There are reports of an atypical opioid withdrawal syndrome characterized by delirium after abrupt cessation of methadone (Levinson et al. 1995). Such clients do not appear to have the autonomic symptoms typically seen in opioid withdrawal. Long-term use of opioids is commonly associated with moderate to severe depression.

Phencyclidine (PCP) causes dissociative and delusional symptoms, and may lead to violent behavior and amnesia of the intoxication. Zukin and Zukin (1992) report that people who use PCP and who exhibit an acute psychotic state with PCP are more likely to experience another with repeated use.

Sedatives

Acute intoxication with sedatives like diazepam is similar to what is experienced with alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms are also similar to alcohol and include mood instability with anxiety and/or depression, sleep disturbance, autonomic hyperactivity, tremor, nausea or vomiting, and, in more severe cases, transient hallucinations or illusions and grand mal seizures. There are reports of a protracted withdrawal syndrome characterized by anxiety, depression, paresthesias, perceptual distortions, muscle pain and twitching, tinnitus, dizziness, headache, derealization and depersonalization, and impaired concentration. Most symptoms resolve within weeks, though some symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and paresthesias (sensations such as prickling, burning, etc.), have been reported to last a year or more after withdrawal in rare cases. No chronic dementia-type syndromes have been characterized with chronic use; however, many people who use sedatives chronically seem to experience difficulty with anxiety symptoms, which respond poorly to other anxiety treatments.

Diagnostic Considerations

Diagnoses of substance-induced mental disorders will typically be provisional and will require reevaluation—sometimes repeatedly. Many apparent acute mental disorders may really be substance-induced disorders, such as in those clients who use substances and who are acutely suicidal (see chapter 8 and appendix D for more on suicidality and drug use).

Some people who have what appear to be substance-induced disorders may turn out to have both a substance-induced disorder and an independent mental disorder. For most people who are addicted to substances, drugs eventually become more important than jobs, friends, family, and even children. These changes in priorities often look, sound, and feel like a personality disorder, but diagnostic clarity regarding personality disorders in general is difficult, and in clients with substance-related disorders the true diagnostic picture might not emerge or reveal itself for weeks or months. Moreover, it is not unusual for the symptoms of a personality disorder to clear with abstinence—sometimes even fairly early in recovery. Preexisting mood state, personal expectations, drug dosage, and environmental surroundings all warrant consideration in developing an understanding of how a particular client might experience a substance-induced disorder. Treatment of the substance use disorder and an abstinent period of weeks or months may be required for a definitive diagnosis of an independent, co-occurring mental disorder. As described in chapter 4 on assessment, substance abuse treatment programs and clinical staff can concentrate on screening for mental disorders and determining the severity and acuity of symptoms, along with an understanding of the client’s support network and overall life situation. The text box below provides an example of the diagnostic criteria for one substance-induced disorder—substance-induced mood disorders.

Criteria for Diagnosis of Substance-Induced Mood Disorders

1. A prominent and persistent disturbance in mood predominates, characterized by (a) a depressed mood or markedly diminished interest or pleasure in activities, or (b) an elevated, expansive, or irritable mood.
2. There is evidence from the history, physical examination, or laboratory findings that the symptoms developed during or within a month after substance intoxication or withdrawal, or medication use, is etiologically related to the mood disturbance.
3. The disturbance is not better explained by a mood disorder.
4. The disturbance did not occur exclusively during a delirium.
5. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment.

Case Studies: Identifying Disorders

George M. is a 37-year-old divorced male who was brought into the emergency room intoxicated. His blood alcohol level was .152, and the toxicology screen was positive for cocaine. He was also suicidal (“I’m going to do it right this time!”). He has a history of three psychiatric hospitalizations and two inpatient substance abuse treatments. Each psychiatric admission was preceded by substance use. George M. has never followed through with mental health care. He has intermittently attended Alcoholics Anonymous, but not recently.

Teresa G. is a 37-year-old divorced female who was brought into a detoxification unit 4 days ago with a blood alcohol level of .150. She is observed to be depressed, withdrawn, with little energy, fleeting suicidal thoughts, and poor concentration, but states she is just fine, not depressed, and life was good last week before her relapse. She has never used drugs (other than alcohol), and began drinking alcohol only 3 years ago. However, she has had several alcohol-related problems since then. She has a history of three psychiatric hospitalizations for depression, at ages 19, 23, and 32. She reports a positive response to antidepressants. She is currently not receiving mental health services or substance abuse treatment. She is diagnosed with alcohol dependence (relapse) and substance-induced mood disorder, with a likely history of, but not active, major depression.

Discussion

Many factors must be examined when making initial diagnostic and treatment decisions. For example, if George M.’s psychiatric admissions were 2 or 3 days long, usually with discharges related to leaving against medical advice, decisions about diagnosis and treatment would be different (i.e., it is likely this is a substance-induced suicidal state and referral at discharge should be to a substance abuse treatment agency rather than a mental health center) than if two of his psychiatric admissions were 2 or 3 weeks long with clearly defined manic and psychotic symptoms continuing throughout the course, despite aggressive use of mental health care and medication (this is more likely a person with both bipolar disorder and alcohol dependence who requires integrated treatment for both his severe alcoholism and bipolar disorder).

Similarly, if Teresa G. had become increasingly depressed and withdrawn over the past 3 months, and had for a month experienced disordered sleep, poor concentration, and suicidal thoughts, she would be best diagnosed with major depression with an acute alcohol relapse rather than substance-induced mood disorder secondary to her alcohol relapse.


January 21, 2015

Comments

One response to “Toxic Effects Of Substances Mimic Mental Illness”

  1. Tropane alkaloids like cocaine can lead to depletion, wash out, of neurotransmitters specially adrenergic neurotransmitters like Noradrenaline. This contributes a lot to withdrawal symptoms.

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