What is methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is part of the amphetamine family of drugs. It is a prescription drug, but is also synthesized in illegal laboratories. It is a highly addictive stimulant that can have serious effects on a user’s physical, mental, and social well-being. It is also known as speed, ice, chalk, meth, crank, and crystal. Methamphetamine is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol and is taken orally, intra-nasally (snorting), by needle injection, or by smoking.
Like cocaine, meth creates an intense, immediate high for the user. While the high from cocaine is relatively short-lived, the meth high is much longer, lasting up to six hours.
What are the physical consequences of using meth?
Methamphetamine use can cause serious health problems including memory loss, aggression, violence, psychotic behavior, and heart problems. Chronic methamphetamine abuse significantly changes how the brain functions. Long-term methamphetamine abuse has many negative health consequences, including extreme weight loss, severe dental problems (“meth mouth”), anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances, and violent behavior.
The intoxicating effects of methamphetamine can also alter judgment and inhibition and lead people to engage in unsafe behaviors, including risky sexual behavior. Abusers of meth who inject the drug may share contaminated needles, syringes, and other injection equipment. HIV, hepatitis B and C, and other infectious diseases can be contracted and spread through these behaviors.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) uses the term “stimulant use disorder” to define a pattern of meth or other stimulant use that leads to significant physical, interpersonal, medical, or work problems. Stimulant use disorder is rated as mild, moderate, or severe based on how many criteria are met. A person diagnosed with stimulant use disorder can also be classified as in remission, or what is commonly referred to as “in recovery.” Those with stimulant use disorder should receive treatment, and those who identify themselves as addicts often find the skills and support to stay sober through peer support groups like Narcotics Anonymous.
Addiction is considered a brain-based disease characterized by abnormal drug-seeking behavior that leads to impaired control over one’s drug use. Addiction means a person will continue using alcohol or other drugs despite the harm it does to their health, family, work or school, and relationships. An addict may experience withdrawal symptoms (physical pain, fatigue, depression, trouble sleeping, irritability) if he or she stops using, and may need to keep using just to feel normal. “Curing” addiction is not a matter of willpower or moral strength any more than is curing diabetes or cancer. Like diabetes and cancer, addiction is considered a chronic disease which is beyond one’s control and fatal if left untreated.
How does meth use affect a co-occurring mental health disorder?
Co-occurring disorders, or dual disorders, occur when a mental health disorder, like depression or schizophrenia, is present along with addiction, alcoholism, or other substance use disorders. Screening for co-occurring disorders should be part of any good assessment or treatment plan.
Chronic methamphetamine abusers may experience paranoia, hallucinations, or other delusional thoughts. This can resemble signs of paranoid schizophrenia or other illnesses and can make it difficult to distinguish between a substance use disorder and a mental illness.
How does meth use affect the brain?
Methamphetamine affects the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the brain’s “feel good” chemical, and part of its “reward” system. Methamphetamine stimulates the brain, making the user feel more energetic and alert, driving him or her to use more and more to repeat the effect. This significantly changes the way the brain functions, including motor function, learning skills, and trouble with emotions and memory. Chronic methamphetamine users who enter treatment face a number of challenges in “re-training” their brain to process emotions and memories the way they used to.
Is addiction to methamphetamine treatable?
Yes. Detoxification and withdrawal from meth, which is an amphetamine, can take several weeks. Medical treatment for meth addiction is interdisciplinary and works on several levels. One effective method of treatment is the Matrix Model, developed by the Matrix Institute of California. The model is backed by over thirty years of research.
Contingency management interventions provide incentives in exchange for engaging in treatment and maintaining abstinence. Such interventions have also been shown to be effective. At this time, no medications have been approved to treat methamphetamine addiction; however, this is an active area of research for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Addiction won’t go away, like a cold or the flu. It is a chronic disease, meaning you have it all your life. However, by staying sober and getting ongoing support, recovering people live normal, healthy, productive lives.
There are many resources out there. The websites for the following organizations were chosen for their usefulness and user friendliness.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): This government organization is dedicated to addiction research and education. Through its website you can access up-to-date publications about many different drugs of abuse as well as emerging trends.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. Its website offers information and resources about preventing and treating addiction and mental illness.
Matrix Institute on Addiction: Learn about the Matrix Model of treatment for substance use disorders at the website for the Matrix Institute.